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Influenza (Flu) Symptoms, Causes, Complications, Types and Treatments

What is the flu (influenza)?

The flu is a highly contagious viral respiratory illness. and is typically spread via the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. It causes symptoms like head and body aches, sore throat, fever and respiratory symptoms, which sometimes can be severe.

Having the flu can keep you away from school, work, and your loved ones. When it comes to the flu, vaccination is always key to protecting yourself and those around you.

Table of Contents

What Are The Symptoms of Flu?

Symptoms of the flu usually come on quickly, and can include:Lady Suffering Flu Symptoms

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Body aches.
  • Cough.
  • Headache.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny or stuffy nose (congestion).
  • Tiredness or feeling run down.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting (usually only in kids).

The loss of taste or smell is one distinctive symptom between COVID-19 flu and the flu. While it may not manifest in all patients, the loss of taste or smell reported by COVID patients, this specific symptom might come on anywhere from two days after contracting the virus up to 14 days after symptom onset.

To distinguish the difference between a cough caused by the flu and COVID-19, you may notice that the flu causes a mild, dry cough. While some variants of COVID-19,  can cause a severe, dry, persistent cough that leaves you short of breath.

What Months are Flu Season?

Flu is most common in winter months, though people can get affected year-round, and the cold temperatures do not cause flu, but can be a contributing factor.

In the U.S. flu season begins as early as October, but usually does not get into full swing until December. The season generally reaches its peak in February and ends in March. In the southern hemisphere, colder temperatures and  the flu season fall between June and September.

Some people argue that the lack of sunlight or the different lifestyles people lead in winter months are the primary contributing factors to infection, but the cold temperatures are not the cause of the virus.  Some theories about why Flu is more prevalent during winter months are:

1) The influenza virus may survive better in colder, drier climates, and therefore be able to infect more people.

2) Days are shorter during the winter, and lack of sunlight leads to low levels of vitamin D and melatonin, both of which require sunlight for their generation. This compromises our immune systems, which in turn decreases ability to fight the virus.

3) During the winter, people spend more time indoors with the windows sealed, so they are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and thus contract the virus.

Who is at higher risk for complications from the flu?

Certain health conditions can put you at higher risk for severe illness from the flu. This includes life-threatening complications that require hospitalization. You’re at higher risk for serious illness if you:

  • Have asthma, COPD or another chronic lung disease.
  • Have a BMI greater than 40 (have obesity).
  • Are under 5 years old or over 65 years old.
  • Are pregnant.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Live in a long-term care facility.

How contagious is the Flu?Flu Contagion

According to the CDC, people with flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins. However, infants and people with weakened immune systems who are infected with flu viruses may be contagious for longer than seven days.

Flu viruses can be detected in most infected persons beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.

Some people can be infected with flu viruses and have no symptoms but may still be able to spread the virus to their close contacts.

How does the flu spread?

The influenza virus is transmitted through direct or indirect contact with an infected person. The most common methods of contracting the flu are:

  1. Respiratory transmission: When an individual coughs, sneezes or talks, they release tiny droplets into the air that can either land on your hands or move through the air and enter your nose or mouth. Once the virus enters your system, it proceeds to infect your lungs.
  2. Fomite transmission: Fomite refers to any surface that has been contaminated by the flu virus. If you come into contact with such a surface and then touch your face, nose, mouth or eyes, you may contract the virus. Examples of fomites include door knobs, desks, computers, and phones.
  3. Contact transmission: This type of transmission occurs when you come into direct contact with the hands or face of someone who is infected with the flu. If you then touch your face, nose, mouth, or eyes, you may contract the virus.

How Long Does a Flu Last?

Flu is spread by sneezing and coughing. If you are experiencing the flu, you’ll begin to feel symptoms within a few days of being in contact with it. For most healthy individuals, the immune system fights it off, making symptoms resolves on their own. Flu symptoms last up to five to  seven days. For other people, symptoms may take time to resolve. You may continue to feel fatigued after your symptoms resolve.

How can you alleviate flu symptoms?

Flu Stay Hydrated

Most people can manage flu symptoms from home using various over-the-counter (OTC) medications and therapies, which include:

  1. Rest: Getting plenty of rest is crucial to aid your body’s recovery.
  2. Hydration: Drinking fluids such as water or broth is important to prevent dehydration.
  3. Heat Therapy: Applying heat packs or hot water bottles to your body can help relieve muscle aches.
  4. Pain Relievers: Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or NSAIDs (Advil®, Motrin®, Aleve®) can help reduce fever and alleviate head and body aches.
  5. Decongestants: Using spray or oral decongestants like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine can provide relief for a runny or stuffy nose.
  6. Cough Suppressants: Taking cough suppressants (antitussives) like dextromethorphan can help soothe a persistent cough.
  7. Expectorants: Using expectorants like guaifenesin can help clear mucus from your lungs.

Before taking any OTC medications, it’s essential to check with your healthcare provider to ensure that they are safe for you to take.

You should also make sure that the medications you’re taking are compatible with any supplements you’re currently using. It’s important not to give aspirin to children under the age of 16 unless their provider has approved it.

What Prescription Medication Is Used For Flu?

Flu Treatment should be given symptomatically. This means the flu treatment you take depends on the symptoms you are feeling. For example, if you are experiencing nasal congestion, then a decongestant will help. Decongestants come in nasal spray or oral forms. If you have a runny nose, an antihistamine might be suitable for you.

According to the FDA, there are four antiviral drugs recommended for the use against influenza viruses, which include;

  1. Zenamivir
  2. Peramivir
  3. Oseltamivir
  4. Baloxavir marboxil

Before any medication is used, you should first consult your physician.

What are the best ways to prevent the flu?

The most effective method of preventing the flu is to receive the flu vaccine every year. Vaccines train your immune system to recognize infections and combat them before they take hold. The influenza virus can mutate each year, making it essential to receive the vaccine annually.

Even if you contract a different strain of the flu than the one in the vaccine, vaccination reduces the risk of becoming seriously ill. You can receive the flu vaccine as a shot or as a nasal spray from your healthcare provider.

Additional ways to minimize the chances of getting the flu include:

  1. Hand hygiene: Regularly wash your hands with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you’re unable to access soap and water.
  2. Cough etiquette: Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use a tissue or your elbow instead of your bare hands.
  3. Social distancing: Avoid being around people who are sick with the flu or other contagious illnesses.
  4. Wearing a mask: If you’re unwell and unable to avoid being around others, consider wearing a mask.
  5. Avoid touching your face: Refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  6. Don’t share utensils: Refrain from sharing food or eating utensils like forks, spoons, and cups.

Remember, preventing the flu is essential to safeguarding your health and the health of those around you.
Several studies show that even if you do get sick with flu, a flu shot can make your illness less severe. Flu vaccination can: Shorten the length of a flu hospital stay, Reduce the risk of ICU admission from flu, Reduce the risk of death from flu.

What Happens if Flu Is Left Untreated?

If flu is left untreated, it can result in severe complications, especially in some groups of people like infants below 2 years, geriatrics above the age of 65 years, immunocompromised individuals, and pregnant women.

Complications due to severe influenza infection include the following symptoms: sinusitis, chronic ear infections, and bronchitis. In more severe cases, it could lead to pneumonia which is dangerous for people already suffering from lung disease. People who have these conditions are more at risk than normal individuals.

People with heart disease and diabetes are 50 times more likely to develop dangerous complications. This is because people with chronic health conditions already suffer from immune system weaknesses that impair the body’s ability to fight against the disease.

Furthermore, women who are pregnant are 4 times more likely to get the flu than other people, and these infections can develop severe symptoms that could affect their pregnancy, resulting in miscarriage, premature birth, or even loss of life.

Determining when to seek medical attention for the flu is important for both treatment and preventing the spread of the virus. If you suspect you may have the flu, it is advisable to contact a healthcare provider as soon as possible to determine if you need to be tested. This is especially true if you have an underlying medical condition that puts you at greater risk of severe illness.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Contact a healthcare provider immediately if your symptoms do not improve after seven to ten days, or if you have a fever lasting longer than three days. If you are pregnant and experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly.

Antiviral medications are most effective when administered early, so it is essential to get tested as soon as possible if you believe you have the flu. Furthermore, timely medical attention can help prevent the spread of the virus to others.

How Long Should I Stay At Home With The Flu?

As a rule of thumb, Experts agree that it is better to stay home as long as you have flu symptoms, like vomiting, diarrhea, cough with mucus, fever, or fatigue, as you may be contagious. The CDC recommends that you stay at home for at least 24 hours after the fever subsides unless there’s a need for you to leave the house for medical care.

Are Flu Symptoms Different Than Covid-19?

The symptoms of Flu and Covid-19 are similar and so you cannot tell them apart most times, yet they have significant symptoms that are peculiar to each other.

What is Common Between Flu and Covid 19?

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 flu and Flu have some symptoms in common.   This is because respiratory diseases often share the same symptoms. Although the virus that causes Covid is known as SARS-coV-2, the virus that causes the flu is simply known as the influenza virus.

To tell the difference between both respiratory diseases, it is essential you get yourself tested to be adequately diagnosed. Covid-19 spreads more rapidly than the flu and causes more severe illness in certain groups of people. When compared to the flu, Covid 19 flu takes more time for symptoms to appear and may be contagious for a longer time.

Which Flu is the Most Common Now?

There are two types of influenza viruses, namely Influenza A and Influenza B.

Influenza A is the most prevalent type of flu. It holds the record for approximately 75 percent of total flu diseases. During the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC tested  1,145,555  specimens and 95% of the positive results were influenza A.

What Foods To Avoid If You Have The Flu?

  • Fatty/Greasy Foods: Greasy foods that are hard-to-digest items and tend to stay longer in the stomach should be avoided. Examples are pizza, fried foods, burgers, and fast foods.
  • Alcohol. This causes dehydration and lowers your immune system. This can make your symptoms worse.
  • Limit dairy intake. Milk products contain sugar lactose. Some individuals recovering from viral gastroenteritis may experience issues digesting lactose.
  • Avoid Consuming Excess sugar. Foods and drinks like sweetened beverages, candy, and some fruit juices can prolong episodes of diarrhea.
  • Processed foods. The more food is processed, the fewer nutrients you’ll get. When you’re down with flu, your body tries to heal itself, so it is imperative that you support the process with nutritious foods.

Types of Food To Consume to Alleviate the Flu Quickly

Foods to Eat to Alleviate Food

  • Garlic: Taking garlic supplements may increase immune cell function and drastically reduce the severity of your flu symptoms. If you don’t like to take garlic supplements, you can get the same benefits from cooking with garlic.
  • Fruits and Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight infections. Some research shows that Vitamin C helps shorten the length and duration of flu by strengthening the immune system.
  • Honey and Hot Beverages: Tea contains a group of polyphenols that help protect against chronic illness. This warm beverage can soothe a sore throat and the steam can help decongest a stuffy throat. Honey on the other soothes sore throat and can help relieve dry cough symptoms. It is also known to contain antimicrobial properties
  • Lean Protein: Proteins are essential in keeping our body strong and healthy. Good sources of lean protein are low in fat, examples include fish, beans, skinless poultry, and tofu.



Additional Material

Is it a cold or flu?
Signs and symptoms Cold Flu
Symptom onset Gradual Sudden
Fever Uncommon Normal
Aches Mild Normal
Chills Rare Pretty common
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Normal
Sneeze Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough Mild to moderate Common
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Headache Uncommon Common

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