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What's True About the Flu

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What it is:  

Influenza (flu) is a contagious viral respiratory infection that typically, although not always, causes fever (100-102° F for several days), severe aches and pains, exhaustion, coughing, sore throat, congestion and a runny nose.

What it’s not: 

  • A cold – Cold symptoms are similar, such as congestion, runny nose and cough, but rarely include fever (and very mild, if so), severe aches and pains and almost never exhaustion. Flu symptoms typically are much more intense than cold symptoms and may start more suddenly.
  • A stomach illness – Although people often say they have the “stomach flu” there is no such thing. While vomiting and diarrhea occasionally are symptoms of the flu more likely in children than adults – severe gastrointestinal symptoms typically suggest a bacterial or different type of viral infection (such as norovirus), rather than the flu, particularly if they are not accompanied by classic flu symptoms. 

The flu can be serious:  

If you get the flu, stay home, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Young children, seniors and others with risk factors – including asthma, pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease – should contact a health care provider right away because they are at higher risk for serious complications from the flu, including bronchitis and pneumonia. It’s important that these people seek medical advice, because the flu increases the risk of:

  • Hospitalization
  • Death (90 percent of deaths occur in people 65 or older during most flu seasons)

The flu can be prevented:  

The flu can be prevented by getting a flu vaccine every year when it becomes available in the fall. See your provider or find a flu vaccination location near you by visiting The vaccine takes two weeks to take full effect, but the flu season can last as late as May, so it’s not too late to get vaccinated. The current vaccine is a good match for the type of viruses causing the flu this year. The types of vaccines available are:

  • The flu shot (including the regular shot, the high-dose shot for people 65 and older and the intradermal shot, which uses a smaller needle)
  • The nasal-spray vaccine (for healthy people 2 to 49 years old)

The flu can be treated:  

Two medications – oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®) – can lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the flu, especially if they are taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. It is important that physicians prescribe these medications for patients with confirmed or suspected influenza who have severe, complicated, or progressive illness; who require hospitalization; or who are at greater risk for serious influenza-related complications. Oseltamivir is now approved for use in infants two weeks and older.

This flu season is a bad one:

All regions in the United States except one (which includes California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii) are reporting high levels of influenza activity, and 5.6 percent of medical visits for the last week of December were for the flu, more than twice the typical rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  It is not completely understood why this is such a bad year, but the predominant strain of flu this year is influenza A (H3N2), which tends to be more severe. 

 Last Updated: 1/14/13

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