What is the flu?
The flu is an infection caused by a number of viruses targeting the respiratory tract. These viruses travel through the air and can enter the body via the mouth or nose. The body will undergo a number of specific symptoms as its immune system gears up to fight the infection. These symptoms are treatable, and most people recover on their own without medical care. However, in cases of flu infection of the elderly, newborn babies, and people with certain chronic illnesses, it can be very serious and even deadly. Staying informed about flu symptoms, duration, and characteristics of its onset, as well as how to prevent the flu is key to keeping you and your family healthy.
What is the difference between the cold and the flu?
Both the common cold and the flu are viral infections that target the respiratory tract, which includes the throat, nose, airways, and lungs. The two diseases have some symptoms in common, but generally, the cold is much less serious. Each year, Americans get more than 1 billion colds, and between only 5 and 20 percent of Americans get the flu.
Cold symptoms develop slowly, are typically much milder than flu symptoms, and most often include:
- Fever up to 102°F
- Runny or stuffy nose (often with green- or yellow-colored discharge)
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Watery eyes
There are no vaccinations to protect oneself from the common cold, and once contracted there are no medications to treat it. The cold also rarely ever causes one to have a headache or nausea, and while one may develop a cough, one typically will not have shortness of breath. Meanwhile, flu symptoms come on suddenly, are much worse than the cold, including further issues like shortness of breath and nausea. These symptoms can be prevented with a vaccine, or treated in some instances with an antiviral. They include:
- Muscle aches, especially in your back, arms and legs
- Chills and sweats
- Sore throat
- Fever over 102°F
- Stuffy nose
- Loss of appetite
What do flu symptoms look like?
There are many, ever-changing flu viruses, so each flu has the potential to be just a little bit different than the last. It is guaranteed, however, no matter the virus, one’s immune system will have to work extremely hard to fight off the offending virus, causing extreme fatigue for up to three weeks. Sudden, excessive fatigue is one of the very first signs of the flu. This fatigue causes one to slow the body down, preserving energy to use only towards protection against the virus. It can cause the body to be dehydrated, dizzy, and confused, so resting and hydrating is extremely important.
One will likely develop many chills, aches, and pains — especially in the head, back, and legs. The flu will cause chills often before a significant fever develops. While very uncomfortable, a fever is the body’s most effective way of fighting off the virus. Flu-related fevers typically are 100˚F (38˚C) or higher.
A persistent cough can also be an early warning sign. Although a cough also accompanies common colds, a flu-related cough may cause wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. One might cough up phlegm or mucus, but this particular symptom is more typical of a cold than the flu. Coughing often will also lead to a sore throat, while some flu viruses cause a swollen throat with or without a cough. Swallowing may be difficult for this reason, as well as the lymph nodes or tonsils, may be swollen due to the body’s intense effort to fight off the infection.
Flu symptoms can reach below the head, throat, and chest, affecting the stomach and gastrointestinal system. Infection of these areas often causes diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. With these particular symptoms, further dehydration is a dangerous consequence making it especially imperative to stay hydrated as much as possible.
How long is the flu contagious, and how long will it last?
Just as the symptoms fluctuate due to the individual and specific virus, so can the duration of the onset. As explained, most flu symptoms (including a fever) come on relatively fast and can last from 1-2 weeks. However, some symptoms take a very long time to dissipate (such as fatigue, congestion, or chest tightness) and can last up to 3-4 weeks. While experiencing a fever, the body is trying its hardest to fight the infection and is therefore definitely the most contagious. Coughing or sneezing or bodily fluids that exit the body during this time contain viral loads that can live on surfaces up to 2 days outside the body, easily infecting others. Only after one has been fever-free for about 24 hours, without supplements and medication, can one be sure the viral load has decreased and the body is no longer so contagious.
When is flu season?
Cases of infection often begin happening in early October, increase by December, spike in the early weeks of January, and continue slowly decreasing sometimes as late as May.
How does one treat the flu?
Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu can lessen the symptoms and shorten the onset of the flu. This is recommended as an immediate treatment for people who are at high risk for serious complications: those 65 and older, young children, people with chronic illnesses (such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma), pregnant women, and others with very weak immune systems and severe symptoms.
Most people who contract the flu, however, can manage the symptoms as their body’s immune system naturally fights off the infection. Getting lots of rest and fluids via water, caffeine-free teas and soups will aid the body’s fight. Over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen will reduce swelling and fever symptoms. Dual action medications that include these pain relievers, as well as decongestants, are helpful in releasing mucus and relieving sinus headaches. You can also utilize a humidifier, or gargle 8 oz. of warm water, 1 tsp. of salt, and ½ tsp. of baking soda to further relieve mucus and chest and throat pain. Cough drops and cough medicine in moderation, as well as Benadryl (or anti-itching allergy medicine), can help relieve a cough and aid one in getting the rest the body so desperately needs. Over-the-counter medication such as this is not proven to support the immune system but can provide relief in adults. In children, over-the-counter medicines may actually elongate flu onset or make the symptoms worse so be sure to consult a doctor for flu treatment in children.
For more information on influenza, download Meritage Medical Network’s Influenza Guide.