What is the flu (influenza)?
The flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu can range from mild to severe and can lead to complications such as pneumonia or hospitalization.
Who's at risk for the flu?
Anyone can get the flu, but certain groups of people are at higher risk for complications from the virus, including:
- Young children
- Older adults
- Pregnant women
- People with weakened immune systems
- People with underlying medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease
What causes the flu?
The flu is caused by influenza viruses, which are highly contagious and can be spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. The flu virus can also be spread by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.
How does the flu start?
The flu typically starts with sudden onset of symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people with the flu may also experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, although these symptoms are more common in children than adults.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
The symptoms of the flu may vary depending on the severity and underlying cause of the condition, but may include:
- Sudden onset of fever and chills
- Cough, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches, headache, and fatigue
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
How is the flu diagnosed?
Diagnosing the flu involves a comprehensive evaluation of a person's symptoms, medical history, and physical exam, as well as laboratory testing such as a rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT) or a viral culture to confirm the presence of the influenza virus.
How can the flu be treated?
Treatment for the flu may involve a range of interventions, including:
- Antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza), which may help reduce the duration and severity of symptoms and prevent complications
- Symptomatic treatment, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and relieve pain and discomfort
- Rest, hydration, and avoiding close contact with others to prevent the spread of the virus
What complications may occur with the flu?
If left untreated or poorly managed, the flu can lead to a range of complications, including:
- Pneumonia or other respiratory infections
- Worsening of underlying medical conditions, such as asthma or heart disease
- Hospitalization or death, particularly in high-risk groups such as older adults or people with weakened immune systems
How can I prevent the flu?
Preventing the flu involves a range of strategies, including:
- Getting an annual flu vaccine, which can help prevent the spread of the virus and reduce the risk of complications
- Practicing good hygiene, such as frequent handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding close contact with others who are sick
- Avoiding large crowds or gatherings during flu season
- Staying home from work or school if you have symptoms of the flu
Long-term management of the flu
Managing the flu over the long term involves ongoing monitoring of symptoms, regular healthcare provider visits, and following a treatment plan as prescribed by a healthcare provider. It may also involve making lifestyle changes to manage symptoms and prevent complications.
What is recent research saying about the flu?
Recent research in the flu has focused on developing new vaccines and treatments to improve outcomes and prevent complications. Some of the promising areas of research include:
- Universal vaccines that protect against multiple strains of the flu virus and do not require annual updates
- Novel antiviral medications or drug combinations, which may help manage the flu more effectively and with fewer side effects
- Development of non-invasive treatments, such as inhalable therapeutics, which may help manage symptoms of the flu more effectively
Where can I go for more information on the flu?
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with the flu or wants more information on how to prevent the virus, it is important to seek help from a healthcare provider who specializes in the treatment of infectious diseases. The following organizations also provide information and resources on the flu: