The flu (influenza) is an infection that affects your respiratory tract. This tract is made up of your mouth, nose, and lungs, and the passages between them. Unlike a cold, the flu can make you very ill. And it can lead to pneumonia, a serious lung infection. The flu can have serious complications and even cause death.
Anyone can get the flu. But you are more likely to become infected if you:
Have a weakened immune system
Work in a healthcare setting where you may be exposed to flu germs
Live or work with someone who has the flu
Haven’t had an annual flu shot
The flu is caused by a virus. The virus spreads through the air in droplets when someone who has the flu coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks. You can become infected when you inhale these viruses directly. You can also become infected when you touch a surface on which the droplets have landed and then transfer the germs to your eyes, nose, or mouth. Touching used tissues, or sharing utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush from an infected person can expose you to flu viruses, too.
Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and may last a few days to a few weeks. They include:
Fever usually higher than 100.4°F (38°C) and chills
Sore throat and headache
Tiredness and weakness
For some people, the flu can be very serious. The risk for complications is greater for:
Children younger than age 5
Adults ages 65 and older
People with a chronic illness such as diabetes or heart, kidney, or lung disease
People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
The flu usually gets better after 7 days or so. In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine. This may help you get well a little sooner. For the medicine to help, you need to take it as soon as possible (ideally within 48 hours) after your symptoms start. If you develop pneumonia or other serious illness, you may need to stay in the hospital.
Drink lots of fluids such as water, juice, and warm soup. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.
Get plenty of rest.
Ask your healthcare provider what to take for fever and pain.
Call your provider if your fever is 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or you become dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath.
Wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing. Or clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand cleaner containing at least 60% alcohol.
Cough or sneeze into a tissue. Then throw the tissue away and wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough and sneeze into your elbow.
Stay home until at least 24 hours after you no longer have a fever or chills. Be sure the fever isn’t being hidden by fever-reducing medicine.
Don’t share food, utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush with others.
Ask your healthcare provider if others in your household should get antiviral medicine to help them avoid infection.
One of the best ways to avoid the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. The virus that causes the flu changes from year to year. For that reason, healthcare providers recommend getting the flu vaccine each year, as soon as it's available in your area. The vaccine is given as a shot. Your healthcare provider can tell you which vaccine is right for you. A nasal spray is also available but is not recommended for the 2016-2017 flu season. The CDC says this is because the nasal spray did not seem to protect against the flu over the last several flu seasons. In the past, it was meant for people ages 2 to 49.
Wash your hands often. Frequent handwashing is a proven way to help prevent infection.
Carry an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol. Use it when you can't use soap and water. Then wash your hands as soon as you can.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
At home and work, clean phones, computer keyboards, and toys often with disinfectant wipes.
If possible, avoid close contact with others who have the flu or symptoms of the flu.
Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent many common infections. If you are caring for or visiting someone with the flu, wash your hands each time you enter and leave the room. Follow these steps:
Use warm water and plenty of soap. Rub your hands together well.
Clean the whole hand, including under your nails, between your fingers, and up the wrists.
Wash for at least 15 seconds.
Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.
Dry your hands well. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also a good choice. Use them when you can't use soap and water. Follow these steps:
Squeeze about a tablespoon of gel into the palm of one hand.
Rub your hands together briskly, cleaning the backs of your hands, the palms, between your fingers, and up the wrists.
Rub until the gel is gone and your hands are completely dry.
The flu is a special concern for people in hospitals and long-term care facilities. To help prevent the spread of flu, many hospitals and nursing homes take these steps:
Healthcare providers wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner before and after treating each patient.
People with the flu have private rooms and bathrooms or share a room with someone with the same infection.
People who are at high risk for the flu but don't have it are encouraged to get the flu and pneumonia vaccines.
All healthcare workers are encouraged or required to get flu shots.
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.