Flu Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Everything you need to know

woman in bed with flu taking temperature
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The flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are three different types of flu viruses: influenza A, B and C. Only types A and B cause illness in humans. Flu season spans late fall to early spring. It typically peaks between December and March. People of all ages can get the flu. However, children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible and more likely to encounter serious complications.

What Causes the Flu?

There are many different strains of the flu virus, and they mutate often. This is why people continue to come down with the flu year after year. The flu is a highly contagious illness that spreads very easily. Coughs and sneezes are strong enough to transmit droplets from the mouth and nose. You can also get the flu trough personal contact (handshakes or hugs), saliva (kissing or sharing drinks) and touching contaminated surfaces (doorknobs or faucets).

When someone else breathes in those respiratory droplets or touches any contaminated object, and then touches their nose, mouth or eyes, the virus spreads. The flu can be contagious 1 day before symptoms appear, to up to 5 days after becoming sick. It's possible to spread the flu before you even know you have it.

The Flu: What to Expect

The flu typically lasts between 4 to 5 days, although it can last anywhere from 2 to 7 days.

Flu symptoms are very similar to cold symptoms, including:

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Low fever

The key difference between cold and flu symptoms, however, is severity. A cold tends to start slow and gradually get worse over a few days. Symptoms can make you feel pretty lousy, but they usually aren't severe enough to disrupt your life.

The flu hits you all at once and completely wipes you out, rendering you unable to go about your daily routine. You can be fairly certain it's the flu if you're experiencing any of the following:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Headache

If you think you might have the flu and are at high risk for complications, or will be around someone who is, contact your health care provider as soon as you develop symptoms. He or she can perform a flu test or diagnose you based on your symptoms and determine the best course of treatment for you.

Is There a Cure for the Flu?

There is no cure for the flu. There are some prescription antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, that may help shorten the duration of the illness. However, Tamiflu is only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Your doctor will determine if these medications are right for you.

You're probably wondering, "What about the flu shot?" The flu shot becomes available every August and September. It provides protection against the flu stain researchers believe is most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season. Still, it isn't 100 percent effective because the influenza virus mutates so frequently.

If you have the flu, there are a few things you can do to feel better:

  • Get plenty of rest (much more than you normally do)
  • Sleep as much as possible
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Take over the counter medication to relieve symptoms
  • Eat if you feel like it, but focus on staying hydrated if you aren't hungry
  • Do not smoke or drink alcohol

Because the flu is so contagious, you should try your best to avoid other people until you're feeling better.

See Also


"Key Facts about Influenza and the Influenza Vaccine." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 30 Aug 06. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 Feb 07.

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