Wondering exactly what the flu is and what to do about it?

We asked the National Institutes of Health for answers to basic questions.

We know: 1-Minute Lesson on the Flu

What is the 'flu'?

Influenza, or flu, is a respiratory infection caused by a variety of flu viruses. The flu differs in several ways from the common cold, a respiratory infection also caused by viruses. For example, people with colds rarely get fevers or headaches or suffer from the extreme exhaustion that flu viruses cause.

Is the flu contagious?

Yes. You will usually feel symptoms 1 to 4 days after being infected. You can spread the flu to others before your symptoms start and for another 3 to 4 days after your symptoms appear.

What are symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms start very quickly and may include:

  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Dry cough
  • Body aches
  • Fever
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

How do you avoid getting the flu?

The main way to keep from getting flu is to get a flu vaccination (injection) each year. Scientists make a different vaccine every year because the strains of flu viruses change.

The Food and Drug Administration has also approved a nasal flu mist. However, not everyone should use the mist, so check with your doctor if you are considering the mist.

Does the vaccine have side effects?

The most common side effect is soreness at the site of the vaccination. Other side effects, especially in children who previously have not been exposed to the flu virus, include fever, tiredness, and sore muscles. These side effects may begin 6 to 12 hours after vaccination and may last for up to 2 days.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

If you are in any of the following groups or live in a household with someone who is, the Centers for Disease Control recommend that you get the flu vaccine.

  • You are 50 years of age or older
  • You have chronic diseases of your heart, lungs, or kidneys
  • You have diabetes
  • Your immune system does not function properly
  • You have a severe form of anemia
  • You will be more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season
  • You live in a nursing home or other chronic-care housing facilitys

If you get the flu, are there medications available?

Although the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent getting the flu, three antiviral medicines also are available by prescription that will help prevent flu infection.

  1. Tamiflu (oseltamivir)
  2. Flumadine (rimantadine)
  3. Symmetrel (amantadine)

How is flu generally treated?

Many people treat their flu infections by simply resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example).

Do not give aspirin to children and adolescents who have the flu.

Do not take antibiotics to treat the flu because they do not work on viruses. Antibiotics only work against some infections caused by bacteria.

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