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What is influenza?

Influenza (also called flu) is a viral infection of the nose, throat, trachea, and bronchi (air passages). Outbreaks of flu occur almost every year, usually in winter.

Flu viruses cause more severe symptoms and can cause more severe medical problems than cold viruses. The elderly, people whose immune systems are impaired, and people with chronic medical problems are particularly at risk for more severe flu symptoms or complications.

How does it occur?

The flu virus is almost always spread from person to person by droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air. It can also be spread by the hands of an infected person who has touched their mouth or nose.

What are the symptoms?

Influenza tends to start suddenly. You may feel fine one hour and have a high fever the next.

The usual first symptoms are:

  • chills and fever (often 101 to 103°F, or 38 to 40°C)
  • sweating
  • muscle aches
  • headache.

Symptoms soon to follow may include:

  • runny nose and nasal congestion
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • eyes sensitive to light.

How is it diagnosed?

Influenza can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms. Your health care provider may examine you to rule out other types of infection, such as strep throat and sinusitis.

How is it treated?

Often you can diagnose and treat yourself. However, you should always see your health care provider if:

  • You are over the age of 65.
  • You have heart disease, asthma, chronic bronchitis, kidney disease, or diabetes.
  • Your immune system does not work normally (for example, because you are taking steroids for another medical problem).
  • Your symptoms become more severe, or you have a painful cough and are coughing up phlegm. This may indicate you have pneumonia or bronchitis.

To take care of yourself at home:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink a lot of liquids. Water, juice, and non-caffeinated drinks are best. Especially when you have a high fever, your body needs much more liquid than when you are healthy. Having enough fluids also helps the mucus in your sinuses and lungs to stay thin and easy to clear from the body. When the mucus is thin, it is less likely to cause a sinus infection or bronchitis.
  • Consider taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve headaches and muscle aches and to lower a fever. (Do NOT use aspirin if you have the flu.)
  • If your nose or sinuses become congested, a decongestant medicine may help you feel better and may possibly help prevent ear or sinus infections.
  • Take cough medicine to help control your cough.
  • Antihistamine medicine can be helpful if a runny nose is making it hard for you to sleep. However, antihistamine has a very drying effect and may cause the mucus in your nose, throat, and lungs to become thick and dry.

How long will the effects last?

Flu symptoms usually last 3 to 7 days. They often start improving gradually after the first 2 days or so.

Infection with the flu virus often leads to other infections, such as ear, sinus, and bronchial infections. Pneumonia can also occur as a result of the flu. It can be caused by the flu virus itself or by bacteria invading lung tissues that have been damaged by the virus. Pneumonia is a common cause of death in people over the age of 65 and often occurs during and after flu outbreaks, however is unlikely in healthy adults.

What can I do to prevent influenza?

The best way to prevent flu is to get a flu shot every fall. Flu shots are usually about 70% effective in preventing flu. Because the flu virus strain varies from year to year, you need to get a new flu shot each year.

The simplest, oldest method of avoiding spread of infection is frequent hand washing, preferably with antibacterial soap from a sanitary dispenser. It is also a good practice not to eat in or near your workplace. Your hands or food might be contaminated with the virus particles from co-workers, customers, or schoolchildren, depending on your place of work.

Developed by McKesson Health Solutions LLC.

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