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What is the flu, its symptoms, treatment, and what months are flu season?

Updated on April 6, 2012

What is the flu? The flu (influenza) is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. The nose, throat, and lungs are targets of the flu virus. It is different from the cold and is more severe. The symptoms from influenza differ from "stomach flu", which is incorrectly named - it isn't actually the flu, but a different type of virus.

How it is spread

The flu can be spread through air. When an infected person coughs or sneezes the virus can be transmitted. This is believed to be the most common way the flu is spread. Contaminated surfaces are a common source of flu transmission. A person may touch their nose or mouth after touching a contaminated surface and become infected.

Contagiousness

Even before flu symptoms develop, an infected person can be contagious. That person may remain contagious for a period of five to seven days after they have become sick from the flu. It is possible for children to pass influenza for a period extending beyond seven days. Flu symptoms start between one to four days after coming in contact with the virus and having it enter the body. Because of this, the flu may be transmitted while the infected person does not even know he or she is sick.

Flu season

The peak time for flu is the colder half of the year. The season is any time within this range where flu outbreaks become prevalent. In the United States, flu season usually occurs sometime between fall and spring. In some instances, flu outbreaks can be tracked geographically and can be predicted.

Symptoms

Often the flu may feel like a cold. The flu is different than a cold in that a cold usually develops at a more gradual pace. The flu typically develops quickly. The severity of they symptoms for the flu are much worse than a cold.

Some of the common flu symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion
  • Throat soreness
  • Muscle pains
  • Headache
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Chills and sweats

Treatment

Bed rest and drinking plenty of fluids are often enough to beat the flu. A doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. These antiviral drugs include Tamiflu and Relenza. When taken soon after symptoms develop, these drugs may lessen the duration of the flu. Antibiotics are not useful in fighting the flu because the flu is a viral illness, and not a bacterial infection.

Vaccination

Vaccines ("flu shots") are available that will help protect against the types of influenza that are expected to be most prevalent in the upcoming flu season. The vaccines can change each year depending on what is expected. About two weeks after a vaccine is administered, antibodies that protect against influenza are developed in the body. People are encouraged to get a flu shot as soon as the vaccine is available.

Preventing the spread

It is important to cover your mouth and nose when coughing. Covering with a tissue is preferred. Frequent washing of hands is very important. When soap and water are not available, a hand-sanitizer can be used. Germs spread fast by touching your mouth, eyes, and nose. Avoid touching these areas. If you believe you may be sick with the flu, it is advised to stay home for 24 hours or more from the time your fever has subsided. Contact with other people should be kept to a minimum to prevent spreading the virus.

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