The flu, an illness caused by the influenza virus, affects 5-20% of the U.S. population and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year. Sadly, thousands of people die from the flu itself or complications every year.
"Unlike a cold that can creep up on you, the flu usually comes on suddenly," says Robin Neale, CLS, CIC, director of Infection Prevention, Women & Infants Hospital. "Symptoms can be similar, but the flu is usually more severe. The most common symptoms of flu are fever (more than 100.4 degrees), body aches, tiredness, and cough. Flu may also cause chills, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea." It typically lasts between one to two weeks.
The good news is that getting immunized generally cuts your chances of getting the flu in half and can also reduce the severity of the illness if you do still get the flu. "We recommend that everyone six months and older be vaccinated every year," says Christopher Furey, MD, of Primary Medical Group of Warwick and assistant professor of family medicine (clinical), The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
"It is especially important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly, immunosuppressed individuals, and those with certain chronic diseases to be vaccinated," Neale says. "These people are more likely to have severe flu disease or complications that require hospitalization."
To keep your immune system functioning well, Dr. Furey suggests eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated. Drink plenty of clear fluids and eat soup. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, which can dehydrate you. A sign that you're well hydrated is having light yellow or clear urine.
If you do get the flu, he advises taking Tylenol or aspirin for aches and fevers, saying, "Other over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not typically helpful." Don't give medicines containing aspirin to children less than 18 years old if they have a fever or are recovering from the flu, as it can cause Reye's syndrome.
In addition, stay home and get plenty of rest "to avoid passing the flu to others, cough and sneeze into your elbow." Also cover coughs with a tissue to contain secretions.
Neale also recommends sanitizing your hands frequently by washing with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand-rub to stop the spread of the virus to others. If others are sick, cleaning your hands will help keep you from becoming ill.
You should also sanitize household objects such as phones and doorknobs, where viruses can live.
Seeing a doctor
Although most people will recover from the flu by following the above advice, there are many instances where people should see a medical professional.
"Women who are pregnant or people with chronic illnesses that may worsen with the flu should contact their doctor as soon as they experience flu symptoms," Dr. Furey says. For instance, the flu may cause asthma attacks in asthmatics or blood sugar problems in diabetics.
"Other reasons for adults to seek care immediately include chest pain, trouble breathing, dizziness, confusion, or persistent vomiting or diarrhea."
Children should be seen right away if they are too fussy to hold, if they are not waking up normally, or if they have trouble breathing, have a fever with a rash, or show signs of dehydration (such as not making tears or not making a normal number of wet diapers), Dr. Furey adds. Finally, any child less than three months old with a fever over 100.4 should be seen by a doctor immediately.
If you do seek medical attention, your doctor may do a flu test or prescribe antiviral drugs, Neale says. Antivirals can shorten severity or length of illness. They work best when started early.
Don't return to work or school until you have gone 24 hours without any fever reducing medicines or having a fever over 100.4, and make sure you can control your cough and secretions.