- Flu vs. Cold
- Flu vs. Food Poisoning
- Influenza A vs. Influenza B
- Flu Shot
- Flu & COVID
What is flu (influenza)?
Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is an illness caused by RNA viruses (Orthomyxoviridae family) that infect the respiratory tract of many animals, birds, and humans. In most people, the infection results in the person getting a fever, cough, headache, and malaise (tired, no energy); some people also may develop a sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The majority of individuals has flu symptoms for about 1-2 weeks and then recovers with no problems. However, compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) infection can cause a more severe illness with a mortality rate (death rate) of about 0.1% of people infected with the virus.
The above is the usual situation for the yearly occurring "conventional" or "seasonal" flu strains. However, there are situations in which some flu outbreaks are severe. These severe outbreaks occur when a portion of the human population is exposed to a flu strain against which the population has little or no immunity because the virus has become altered in a significant way. These outbreaks are usually termed epidemics. Unusually severe worldwide outbreaks (pandemics) have occurred several times in the last hundred years since influenza virus was identified in 1933. By an examination of preserved tissue, the worst influenza pandemic (also termed the Spanish flu or Spanish influenza) occurred in 1918 when the virus caused between 40-100 million deaths worldwide, with a mortality rate estimated to range from 2%-20%.
In April 2009, a new influenza strain against which the world population has little or no immunity was isolated from humans in Mexico. It quickly spread throughout the world so fast that the WHO declared this new flu strain (first termed novel H1N1 influenza A swine flu, often later shortened to H1N1 or swine flu) as the cause of a pandemic on June 11, 2009. This was the first declared flu pandemic in 41 years. Fortunately, there was a worldwide response that included vaccine production, good hygiene practices (especially hand washing), and the virus (H1N1) caused far less morbidity and mortality than was expected and predicted. The WHO declared the pandemic's end on Aug. 10, 2010.
Since 2003, researchers identified another strain, H5N1, a bird flu virus, that caused about 650 human infections. This virus has not been detected in the U.S. and easily spreads among people in contrast to other flu strains. Unfortunately, people infected with H5N1 have a high death rate (about 60% of infected people die). Currently, H5N1 does not readily transfer from person to person like other flu viruses.
Mortality from influenza varies from year to year. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the flu resulted in 9-41 million illnesses, 140,000 – 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 – 52,000 deaths per year between 2010 and 2020.
Haemophilus influenzae is a bacterium incorrectly considered to cause the flu until the virus was demonstrated to be the correct cause in 1933. This bacterium can cause lung infections in infants and young children, and it occasionally causes ear, eye, sinus, joint, and a few other infections, but it does not cause the flu.
Another confusing term is stomach flu. This term refers to a gastrointestinal tract infection, not a respiratory infection like influenza (flu). Influenza viruses do not cause stomach flu (gastroenteritis). Another name problem is with the condition called swine flu. Swine flu is a flu-like illness that usually infects pigs, but the term swine flu was applied to a flu strain that also could infect humans (H1N1). In 2018-19, the pig version of the virus (not infecting humans to date) killed the majority of pigs in China, forcing that country to begin to utilize its emergency stockpile of pork.
Although initially, symptoms of influenza may mimic those of a cold, influenza is more debilitating with symptoms of fatigue, fever, and respiratory congestion. Colds can be caused by over 100 different virus types, but only influenza viruses (and subtypes) A, B, and C cause the flu. In addition, colds do not lead to life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia, but severe infections with influenza viruses can lead to pneumonia or even death.
Flu vs. cold
Compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) infection usually causes a more severe illness with a mortality rate (death rate) of about 0.1% of people infected with the virus. Cold symptoms (for example, sore throat, runny nose, cough (with possible phlegm production), congestion, and slight fever) are similar to flu symptoms, but the flu symptoms are more severe, last longer, and may include vomiting, diarrhea, and cough that is often a dry cough.
The following table from the CDC helps to distinguish between a cold and influenza:
|Signs and Symptoms||Influenza||Cold|
|Fever||Usual; lasts 3-4 days||Rare|
|Aches||Usual; often severe||Slight|
|Chest discomfort, cough||Common; can be severe||Mild to moderate; hacking cough|
Flu vs. food poisoning
Although some of the symptoms of influenza may mimic those of food poisoning, others do not. Most symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. Note that the majority of food poisoning symptoms are related to the gastrointestinal tract, except for fever. The common flu signs and symptoms include fever but also include symptoms that are not typical for food poisoning, because the flu is a respiratory disease. Consequently, respiratory symptoms of nasal congestion, dry cough, and some breathing problems help distinguish the flu from food poisoning.
IMAGESSee a medical illustration of the the influenza virus plus our entire medical gallery of human anatomy and physiology See Images
What causes the flu?
Influenza virus information
Influenza viruses cause the flu and are divided into three types, designated A, B, and C. Influenza A and influenza B are responsible for epidemics of respiratory illness that occur almost every winter and are often associated with increased rates of hospitalization and death. Influenza type C differs from types A and B in some important ways. Type C infection usually causes either a very mild respiratory illness or no symptoms at all. It does not cause epidemics and does not have the severe public health impact of influenza types A and B. Efforts to control the impact of influenza are aimed at types A and B, and the remainder of this discussion will be devoted only to these two types.
Influenza viruses continually change over time, usually by mutation (change in the viral RNA). This constant changing often enables the virus to evade the immune system of the host (humans, birds, and other animals) so that the host is susceptible to changing influenza virus infections throughout life. This process works as follows: A host infected with influenza virus develops antibodies against that virus; as the virus changes, the "first" antibody no longer recognizes the "newer" virus and infection can occur because the host does not recognize the new flu virus as a problem until the infection is well under way. The first antibody developed may provide partial protection against infection with a new influenza virus. In 2009, almost all individuals had no antibodies that could recognize the novel H1N1 virus immediately.
Type A viruses are divided into subtypes or strains based on differences in two viral surface proteins called the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). There are at least 16 known H subtypes and nine known N subtypes. These surface proteins can occur in many combinations. When spread by droplets or direct contact, the virus, if not killed by the host's immune system, replicates in the respiratory tract and damages host cells. In people who are immune compromised (for example, pregnant women, infants, cancer patients, asthma patients, people with pulmonary disease, and many others), the virus can cause viral pneumonia or stress the individual's system to make them more susceptible to bacterial infections, especially bacterial pneumonia. Both pneumonia types, viral and bacterial, can cause severe disease and sometimes death.
Antigenic shift and drift
Influenza type A viruses undergo two major kinds of changes. One is a series of mutations that occurs over time and causes a gradual evolution of the virus. This is called antigenic "drift." The other kind of change is an abrupt change in the hemagglutinin and/or the neuraminidase proteins. This is called antigenic "shift." In this case, a new subtype of the virus suddenly emerges. Type A viruses undergo both kinds of changes; influenza type B viruses change only by the more gradual process of antigenic drift and therefore do not cause pandemics.
The 2009 pandemic-causing H1N1 virus was a classic example of antigenic shift. Research showed that novel H1N1 swine flu has an RNA genome that contains five RNA strands derived from various swine flu strains, two RNA strands from bird flu (also termed avian flu) strains, and only one RNA strand from human flu strains. According to the CDC, mainly antigenic shifts over about 20 years led to the development of novel H1N1 flu virus. A diagram that illustrates both antigenic shift and drift (see Figure 2) and features influenza A types H1N1 and bird flu (H5N1), but almost every influenza A viral strain can go through these processes that changes the viral RNA.
When does flu season begin and end?
Flu season officially begins in October of each year and extends to May of the following year. According to the CDC, people can follow the development of flu across the United States by following CDC's weekly update of the locations where flu is developing in the U.S. (see the flu map).
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Which is worse influenza A or influenza B?
Type A influenza is generally considered worse than type B influenza. This is because the symptoms are often more severe in type A influenza than in type B influenza. Type A influenza is also more common than type B influenza. Researchers suggest that most adults have considerable immunity against type B influenza. Thus, type B influenza is less common in adults than type A influenza and when it occurs, it is less severe as well. Children, however, may develop severe disease following type B influenza. It is noteworthy that just like type A influenza, type B influenza can cause serious and life-threatening disease in some people. Moreover, both infections can pass from person to person.
How does flu spread?
How can you get influenza?
Flu easily spreads from person to person both directly and indirectly. Human-to-human flu transmission occurs via droplets contaminated with the virus. Produced by coughing, sneezing, or even talking, these droplets land near or in the mouth or the nose of uninfected people, and the disease may spread to them. The disease can spread indirectly to others if contaminated droplets land on utensils, dishes, clothing, or almost any surface that uninfected people then touch. If the infected person touches their nose or mouth, for example, they transfer or spread the disease to themselves or others.
Incubation period for the flu, which means the time from exposure to the flu virus until initial symptoms develop, typically is 1-4 days with an average incubation period of 2 days.
How long are you contagious with the flu?
The flu is typically contagious about 24-48 hours before symptoms appear (from about the last day of the incubation period) and in normal healthy adults is contagious for another 5-7 days. Children are usually contagious for a little while longer (about 7-10 days). Individuals with severe infections may be contagious as long as symptoms last (about 7-14 days).
What are the symptoms of the flu in adults and in children?
What are the first warning signs of the flu?
- fever (usually 100 F-103 F in adults and often even higher in children, sometimes with facial flushing and/or sweating),
- respiratory symptoms such as
- cough (more often in adults),
- sore throat (more often in adults),
- runny or stuffy nose (congestion, especially in children),
- muscle aches (body aches), and
- fatigue, sometimes extreme.
Can you have the flu without a fever?
Yes, it is possible to get flu without fever.
Fever (oral temperature of 100°F or higher) is a defense mechanism launched by the body to halt the progression of the virus or the bacteria; however, every person has a specific reaction to the pathogen.
Some may develop all symptoms except fever, while others may feel feverish though the thermometer may not show fever. Additionally, some individuals may take over-the-counter medications for sore throat and runny nose, which may contain some amount of acetaminophen, so they may not develop a fever at all.
Although appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can sometimes accompany influenza infection, especially in children, gastrointestinal symptoms are rarely prominent. The term "stomach flu" is a misnomer that some people use to describe gastrointestinal illnesses caused by other microorganisms. H1N1 infections, however, caused more nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea than the conventional (seasonal) flu viruses. Depending upon the severity of the infection, some patients can develop swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, shortness of breath, severe headaches, chest pain or chest discomfort, dehydration, and even death.
How long do flu symptoms last?
Most individuals who contract influenza recover in a week or two, however, others develop potentially life-threatening complications like pneumonia. In an average year, influenza is associated with about 36,000 deaths nationwide and many more hospitalizations. Flu-related complications can occur at any age; however, the elderly and people with chronic health problems are much more likely to develop serious complications after the conventional influenza infections than are younger, healthier people. When people ignore or refuse flu vaccination, the death rate increases as shown by the recent higher death rates.
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Diagnosis of the flu
Individuals with mild flu symptoms may not require the care of a physician unless they are a member of a high-risk group as described above. For many individuals, treatment is provided by their primary care physician or provider (including internists or family medicine specialists and physician assistants and other primary caregivers) or pediatrician. Complicated or severe flu infections may require consultation with an emergency-medicine physician, critical care specialist, infectious-disease specialist, and/or a lung specialist (pulmonologist).
Medical professionals clinically diagnose the flu by evaluating the patient's history of association with people known to have the disease and their symptoms listed above. Usually, a health care professional performs a quick test (for example, nasopharyngeal swab sample) to see if the patient has an influenza A or B viral infection. Most of the tests can distinguish between A and B types. The test can be negative (no flu infection) or positive for types A or B. If it is positive for type A, the person could have a conventional flu strain or a potentially more aggressive strain such as H1N1. Most of the rapid tests are based on PCR technology that identifies the genetic material of the virus. Some rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) can screen for influenza in about 10-30 minutes.
Swine flu (H1N1) and other influenza strains like bird flu or H3N2 are definitively diagnosed by identifying the particular surface proteins or genetic material associated with the virus strain. In general, this testing is done in a specialized laboratory. However, doctors' offices are able to send specimens to specialized laboratories if necessary.
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What are the treatments for the flu?
First, individuals should be sure they are not members of a high-risk group that is more susceptible to getting severe flu symptoms. Check with a physician if you are unsure if you are a higher-risk person. The CDC recommends home care if a person is healthy with no underlying diseases or conditions (for example, asthma, lung disease, pregnant, or immunosuppressed).
Increasing liquid intake, warm showers, and warm compresses, especially in the nasal area, can reduce the body aches and reduce nasal congestion or head congestion. Nasal strips and humidifiers may help reduce congestion, especially while trying to sleep. Some physicians recommend nasal irrigation with saline to further reduce congestion; some recommend nonprescription decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). Over-the-counter fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others) can treat a fever. Read labels for safe dosage. Cough drops, over-the-counter cough syrup, or cough medicine that may contain dextromethorphan (Delsym) and/or guaifenesin (Mucinex) can suppress a cough. Notify a doctor if an individual's symptoms at home get worse.
How do you cure the flu quickly?
- Getting plenty of bed rest to boost immune function and ward off viruses.
- Drinking plenty of fluids like water or juice to flush viruses or bacteria out of the body.
- Putting an air humidifier in your room to provide extra moisture to ease breathing.
- Drinking warm beverages like chicken soup or ginger tea would provide a soothing effect by reducing mucus buildup and improving the body’s hydration.
- Elevating your head using a pillow while sleeping to combat breathing difficulties.
- Using nasal strips available as over the counter (OTC) product to open your nasal passages.
- Drinking warm water with two to three teaspoons of honey mixed in it to curb dry cough, which may stem with or after having a cold.
- Making sure to eat a healthy diet even when the appetite goes down.
- Gargling with warm salt water to relieve a sore throat.
- Sitting under a steamy shower may help to relieve stuffiness. Sit away from hot water to avoid burns.
- Sucking on soothing lozenges will moisten and provide a coat for the sore throat, which may relieve your cough.
- Nasal irrigation helps to irrigate and moisten nasal passages. However, use it with caution and understand its instruction completely before using it.
What medications treat the flu?
The CDC published the following guidance concerning antiviral drugs:
Antiviral medications with activity against influenza viruses (anti-influenza drugs) are an important adjunct to influenza vaccine in the control of influenza.
What is the best medicine for the flu?
Influenza antiviral prescription drugs treat influenza.
There are four FDA-approved antiviral drugs recommended by CDC to treat flu this season. These drugs work best when started within 2 days of developing symptoms.
- oseltamivir phosphate (available as a generic version or under the trade name Tamiflu®),
- zanamivir (trade name Relenza®)
- peramivir (trade name Rapivab®), and
- baloxavir marboxil (trade name Xofluza®).
Over-the-counter medications that may help reduce symptoms of congestion (decongestants), coughing (cough medicine), and dehydration include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), acetaminophen (Tylenol), NSAIDs (Advil, Motrin, Aleve), guaifenesin (Mucinex), dextromethorphan (Delsym), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), and oral fluids. Aspirin may be used in adults but not in children.
Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral illnesses like the flu.
Individuals with the flu may also benefit from some additional bed rest, throat lozenges, and possibly nasal irrigation; drinking fluids may help prevent symptoms of dehydration (for example, dry mucus membranes and decreased urination).
How effective is the flu vaccine?
Vaccine efficacy also varies from one person to another. Past studies of healthy young adults have shown influenza vaccine to be 70%-90% effective in preventing illness. In the elderly and those with certain chronic medical conditions such as HIV, the vaccine is often less effective in preventing illness. Studies show the vaccine reduces hospitalization by about 70% and death by about 85% among the elderly who are not in nursing homes. Among nursing home residents, vaccine can reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 50%, the risk of pneumonia by about 60%, and the risk of death by 75%-80%. Some years, the vaccine may be less effective than normal. This occurs because the vaccine needs to be produced months before the flu season begins, so the vaccine is designed by projecting and choosing the most likely viral strains to include in the vaccine. If drift results in changing the circulating virus from the strains used in the vaccine, efficacy may be reduced. However, the vaccine is still likely to lessen the severity of the illness and to prevent complications and death, according to the CDC.
Why do people need to get the flu shot every year?
Although only a few different influenza virus strains circulate at any given time, people may continue to become ill with the flu throughout their lives. The reason for this continuing susceptibility is that influenza viruses are continually mutating, through the mechanisms of antigenic shift and drift described above. Each year, researchers update the vaccine to include the most current influenza virus strains that are infecting people worldwide. The fact that influenza viral genes continually change is one of the reasons people must get the vaccine every year. Another reason is that antibody produced by the host in response to the vaccine declines over time, and antibody levels are often low one year after vaccination so even if the same vaccine is used, it can act as a booster shot to raise immunity.
Many people still refuse to get flu shots because of misunderstandings, fear, "because I never get any shots," or simply a belief that if they get the flu, they will do well. These are only some of the reasons -- there are many more. The U.S. and other countries' populations need to be better educated about vaccines; at least they should realize that safe vaccines have been around for many years (measles, mumps, chickenpox, and even a vaccine for cholera), and as adults they often have to get a vaccine-like shot to test for tuberculosis exposure or to protect themselves from tetanus. The flu vaccines are as safe as these vaccines and shots that are widely accepted by the public. Consequently, better efforts need to be made to make yearly flu vaccines as widely acceptable as other vaccines. Susceptible people need to understand that the vaccines afford them a significant chance to reduce or prevent this potentially debilitating disease, hospitalization and, in a few, a lethal flu-caused disease.
Influenza vaccination recommendations and guidance
In the United States, the flu season usually occurs from about November until April. Officials have decided each new flu season will start each year on Oct. 4. Typically, activity is very low until December, and peak activity most often occurs between January and March. Ideally, the conventional flu vaccine should be administered between September and mid-November. Flu season typically occurs between October and May. It takes about 1-2 weeks after vaccination for antibodies against influenza to develop and provide protection. The CDC has published a summary list of their current recommendations of who should get the current vaccine.
Summary of CDC influenza vaccination recommendations for 2023-2024
Updated CDC information and guidance in this report includes the following taken directly from the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/acip/summary/summary-recommendations.htm):
- Routine annual influenza vaccination is recommended for all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications.
- For most persons who need only one dose of influenza vaccine for the season, vaccination should ideally be offered during September or October. However, vaccination should continue throughout the season as long as influenza viruses are circulating.
- Persons who are pregnant or who might be pregnant during the influenza season should receive influenza vaccine.
- Please refer to the CDC website for information regarding specific vaccines, special patient considerations, dosages, and contraindications.
Is it safe to get a flu shot that contains thimerosal?
Thimerosal is a preservative that contains mercury and is used in multidose vials of conventional flu vaccines to prevent contamination when the vial is repeatedly used to extract the vaccine. Although thimerosal is being phased out as a vaccine preservative, it is still used in flu vaccines in low levels. There is no data that indicates thimerosal in these vaccines has caused autism or other problems in individuals. However, flu vaccine that is produced for single use (not a multidose vial) contains no thimerosal; however, these vials are not as readily available to doctors and likely cost more to produce. Consequently, the FDA has published these two questions with clear answers that are quoted below:
"Is it safe for children to receive an influenza vaccine that contains thimerosal?"
"Yes. There is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the small doses of thimerosal preservative in influenza vaccines, except for minor effects like swelling and redness at the injection site."
"Is it safe for pregnant women to receive an influenza vaccine?"
"Yes. A study of influenza vaccination examining over 2,000 pregnant women demonstrated no adverse fetal effects associated with influenza vaccine. Case reports and limited studies indicate that pregnancy can increase the risk for serious medical complications of influenza. One study found that out of every 10,000 women in their third trimester of pregnancy during an average flu season, 25 will be hospitalized for flu-related complications."
However, as stated above, the FDA goes on to say that single-dose vial of conventional and other flu vaccines will not contain the preservative thimerosal, so that if a person wants to avoid the thimerosal, they can ask for vaccine that comes in a single-dose vial. The nasal spray vaccine contains no thimerosal, but it is not recommended for use in pregnant women. The CDC further states, that after numerous studies, there is no established link between flu shots with or without thimerosal and autism.
Flu shot or nasal spray vaccine side effects in seniors, adults, and children
Although annual influenza (injectable) vaccination has long been recommended for people in the high-risk groups, many still do not receive the vaccine, often because of their concern about side effects. They mistakenly perceive influenza as merely a nuisance and believe that the vaccine causes unpleasant side effects or that it may even cause the flu. The truth is that influenza vaccine causes no side effects in most people. In the past, patients with egg allergy had restrictions on getting the vaccine. However, extensive research has indicated that there is not enough egg protein in the vaccine to trigger an immune response, and the CDC states: “Egg allergy necessitates no additional safety measures for influenza vaccination beyond those recommended for any recipient of any vaccine, regardless of severity of previous reaction to egg.”
Some older people may remember earlier influenza vaccines that did, in fact, produce more unpleasant side effects. Vaccines produced from the 1940s to the mid-1960s were not as highly purified as modern influenza vaccines, and it was these impurities that caused most of the side effects. Since the side effects associated with these early vaccines, such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and/or fatigue and malaise, were similar to some of the symptoms of influenza, people believed that the vaccine had caused them to get the flu. However, injectable influenza vaccine produced in the United States has never been capable of causing influenza because it consists of killed virus.
Another type of influenza vaccine (nasal spray) is made with live attenuated (altered) influenza viruses (LAIV). This vaccine is made with live viruses that can stimulate the immune response enough to confer immunity but do not cause classic influenza symptoms (in most instances). The nasal spray vaccine is only approved for healthy individuals ages 2-49 years of age. This nasal spray vaccine contains live attenuated virus (less able to cause flu symptoms due to a designed inability to replicate at normal body temperatures). Side effects of the nasal spray vaccine include nasal congestion, sore throat, and fever. Headaches, muscle aches, irritability, and malaise have also been noted. In most instances, if side effects occur, they only last a day or two. This nasal spray has been produced for conventional flu viruses and should not be given to pregnant women or anyone who has a medical condition that may compromise the immune system because in some instances the flu may be a side effect.
Can the flu shot harm my unborn baby?
Getting the flu shot will not harm your unborn baby at any stage of pregnancy. The CDC recommends that people who are pregnant receive a flu shot. The flu shot is both safe and recommended to protect you and your baby from the virus. Don’t however, get the nasal spray vaccine, which is not recommended for pregnant women.
If you’re concerned about getting the flu shot during pregnancy, talk to your doctor.
How long does the flu last?
In adults, flu symptoms usually last about 5-7 days, but in children, the symptoms may last longer (about 7-10 days). However, some symptoms such as weakness and fatigue may gradually wane over several weeks.
What is the prognosis for the flu?
In general, the majority (about 90%-95%) of people who get the flu feel terrible (see symptoms) but recover with no problems. People with suppressed immune systems historically have worse outcomes than uncompromised individuals; current data suggest that pregnant individuals, children under 2 years of age, young adults, and individuals with any immune compromise or debilitation are likely to have a worse prognosis. Complications of long-term problems from the flu may worsen medical conditions such as asthma, congestive heart failure, and diabetes. Other complications may include ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, pneumonia, and even death. In most outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics, the mortality rates are highest in the older population (usually above 50 years old). Complications of any flu virus infection, although relatively rare, may resemble severe viral pneumonia or the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome caused by a coronavirus strain) outbreak in 2002-2003, in which the disease spread to about 10 countries with over 7,000 cases, over 700 deaths, and had a 10% mortality rate. Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare immune disorder that can result in weakness or paralysis, may occur after having the flu or very rarely, after vaccination against the flu (estimated by the CDC to be about one person per every million people vaccinated).
What are the complications of the flu?
Can the flu cause serious health problems?
The flu or influenza is usually a mild illness that goes away on its own. However, the flu can lead to serious complications, especially in certain groups of people.
- An inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs.
- Often caused by the flu or other respiratory infections and can lead to coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulty.
- An inflammation of the sinuses, which are small, air-filled cavities in the skull.
- Can be caused by the flu or other respiratory infections and can lead to congestion, headache, and facial pain.
- Otitis media
- An inflammation of the muscles can be caused by the flu. It can lead to muscle weakness, pain, and difficulty moving.
- An inflammation of the brain can be caused by the flu or other viruses. It can lead to serious symptoms such as confusion, seizures, and difficulty speaking.
- Cardiac complications
- In rare cases, the flu can lead to sepsis, which is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when an infection spreads throughout the body and triggers a severe immune response.
- Symptoms of sepsis include fever, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, and changes in mental status.
- Reye's syndrome
- A rare but serious condition that can occur in children and adolescents who have the flu and are taking aspirin. It can cause liver and brain damage.
When should a person go to the emergency department for the flu?
The CDC urges people to seek emergency medical care for a sick child with any of these flu effects (symptoms or signs):
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing (shortness of breath)
- Bluish or gray skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and cough
The following is the CDC's list of symptoms that should trigger emergency medical care for adults:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Influenza-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
- Having a high fever for more than 3 days is another danger sign, according to the WHO, so the CDC has also included this as another serious symptom.
Can the flu be deadly?
Yes. However, associated deaths per year depend upon the virulence of the particular strain of virus that is circulating. That means for any given year, the likelihood of dying from the flu varies according to the specific infecting viruses. The CDC estimates about 36,000 deaths/year (average) in the U.S. in recent years, but these may increase if vaccination rates continue to fall. The 1918 influenza pandemic (1918-1919) was estimated to cause 20-50 million deaths worldwide.
What is the key to flu prevention?
Annual influenza vaccination can prevent most of the illness and death that influenza causes. The CDC's current Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) issued recommendations for everyone 6 months of age and older, who do not have any contraindications to vaccination, to receive a flu vaccine each year.
Other simple hygiene methods can reduce or prevent some individuals from getting the flu. For example, avoiding kissing, handshakes, and sharing drinks or food with infected people and avoiding touching surfaces like sinks and other items handled by individuals with the flu are good preventive measures. Washing one's hands with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer frequently during the day may help prevent the infection. Individuals with the flu should avoid coughing or sneezing on uninfected people; quick hugs are probably okay as long as there is no contact with mucosal surfaces and/or droplets that may contain the virus. Wearing a mask may help reduce your chances of getting the disease, and if you unknowingly or know you have the infection, help to reduce spreading it to others.
What can people eat when they have the flu?
While a person has the flu, good nutrition can help the recovery process. Anyone with the flu needs to avoid dehydration, soothe sore throat and/or upset stomach, and have a good protein intake. Avoid dehydration by maintaining an adequate fluid intake. Sore throat and upset stomach may be relieved by broths or warm soups (chicken, vegetable, or beef) and plain crackers, toast, and ginger tea or noncarbonated ginger ale. Scrambled eggs, yogurt, and/or protein drinks are good protein sources. In addition, bananas, rice, and applesauce are food that are often recommended for those with an upset stomach. This list is not exhaustive but should provide a balanced approach to help speed recovery from the flu.
Can you get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
It is possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. There is little or no data available to determine how often such concurrent infections may happen.
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Cold & Flu QuizAches? Pain? Fever? This Cold & Flu Quiz tests your knowledge on the difference between coming down with the common cold and sickness from influenza virus.
Is It Contagious QuizIs it contagious? Take this quiz to learn about contagious diseases, how contagious diseases are spread, and myths and facts about contagions.
DiarrheaDiarrhea is a change in the frequency and looseness of bowel movements. Symptoms associated with diarrhea are cramping, abdominal pain, and the sensation of rectal urgency. Causes of diarrhea include viral, bacterial, or parasite infection, gastroenteritis, food poisoning, and drugs. Absorbents and anti-motility medications are used to treat diarrhea.
Flu Vaccine (Flu Shot)Every year in the United States, on average, 5%-20% of the population gets the flu, more than 500,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and about 34,000 people die from flu. The flu is highly infectious and is a serious viral respiratory infection. Flu vaccine is an inactivated vaccine, meaning that it contains killed influenza virus. Anyone who wishes to reduce their risk of getting the flu can be vaccinated, however the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who are at risk for serious complications from the flu be vaccinated each year.
Foods for the FluThe best foods to eat when you have the flu soothe symptoms and help you feel better faster. Good foods to eat with the flu include popsicles, turkey, vegetable juice, chicken soup, garlic, ginger, hot tea, bananas, toast, meal replacement drinks, oranges, pumpkin seeds, and carrots.
Cough: 19 Tips on How to Stop a CoughCoughing is a reflex that helps a person clear their airways of irritants. There are many causes of an excessive or severe cough including irritants like cigarette and secondhand smoke, pollution, air fresheners, medications like beta blockers and ACE inhibitors, the common cold, GERD, lung cancer, and heart disease.Natural and home remedies to help cure and soothe a cough include staying hydrated, gargle salt water, use cough drops or lozenges, use herbs and supplements like ginger, mint, licorice, and slippery elm, and don't smoke. Over-the-counter products (OTC)to cure and soothe a cough include cough suppressants and expectorants, and anti-reflux drugs. Prescription drugs that help cure a cough include narcotic medications, antibiotics, inhaled steroids, and anti-reflux drugs like proton pump inhibitors or PPIs, for example, omeprazole (Prilosec), rabeprazole (Aciphex), and pantoprazole (Protonix).
16 Immune Boosting FoodsHelp fight colds, flu, as well as viruses like coronavirus with foods that boost and improve your immune system. Reach for bright-colored antioxidant and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables such berries, broccoli, garlic, ginger, tea and more for vibrant health.
Vaccination Schedule for Adults and AdolescentsImmunizations can prevent many diseases nowadays. It's important to follow the vaccination guidelines recommended on the CDC's vaccination schedule for adults and adolescents in order to stay informed about new vaccines and to learn how often and when the vaccines should be administered.
Influenza Virus PictureThe flu is caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract which are divided into three types, designated A, B, and C. See a picture of Influenza Virus and learn more about the health topic.
How to Differentiate Between the Signs and Symptoms of COVID-19, Allergies, Cold, and Flu?Coronavirus disease or COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Most people with COVID-19 will experience a mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without the need for intensive or special treatment. Serious illness is more likely in elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.
Sinus Surgery (Endoscopic) ProcedureSinus surgery involves the precise removal of diseased sinus tissue with the improvement in the natural drainage channels by the creation of a pathway for infected material to drain from the sinus cavities. The sinus surgery information is provided to help you prepare for sinus surgery and to help you understand more clearly the associated benefits, risks, and complications.
Swollen Lymph Nodes (Lymphadenopathy)Lymph nodes help the body's immune system fight infections. Causes of swollen lymph nodes (glands) may include infection (viral, bacterial, fungal, parasites). Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes vary greatly, but may include fever, night sweats, toothache, sore throat, or weight loss. Causes of swollen lymph nodes also vary, but may include cancer, the common cold, mono, chickenox, HIV, and herpes. The treatment of swollen lymph nodes depends upon the cause.
Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)An upper respiratory infection is a contagious infection of the structures of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx. Common causes of an upper respiratory infection include bacteria and viruses such as rhinoviruses, group A streptococci, influenza, respiratory syncytial, whooping cough, diphtheria, and Epstein-Barr. Examples of symptoms of upper respiratory infection include sneezing, sore throat, cough, fever, and nasal congestion. Treatment of upper respiratory infections are based upon the cause. Generally, viral infections are treated symptomatically with over-the-counter (OTC) medication and home remedies.
Vaccination FAQVaccinations increase our ability to fight diseases that may be contagious or even fatal. Immunity occurs by getting the disease or through the use of a vaccine. There are two types of vaccine: inactivated vaccines and vaccines made from live, weakened viruses.
What's a Virus?Is a virus alive? Learn the definition of a virus. Viral infections like COVID-19 can occur in your eyes, mouth, skin, or anywhere else. Should you use antibiotics to treat the flu? Is this STD a bacterium or a virus? Get the answers to the most common questions about viral infections.
Why Is My Whole Body Aching?Learn the reasons you have whole body aches and what you can do to relieve your whole body aching symptoms. Learn what medical treatments can help ease your body aches and speed up your recovery.