FAQs About the Flu

The flu season is still in full swing. Here’s what to know and what to do to help prevent the flu and deal with the symptoms if you catch it.

WHN TIP — Check With Your Doc: As always, discuss your options and treatment with your healthcare practitioner.

What is the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.

How long does the flu season last?

In the United States, flu season occurs in the fall and winter. While influenza viruses circulate year-round, most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, but activity can last as late as May.

How does the flu spread?

The flu virus spreads when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk, sending tiny droplets out into the surrounding area. These droplets then land in the mouths or noses of other people.

It is also possible to contract the flu by touching a surface or item with the flu virus on it, and then touching your own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.

How can I avoid catching the flu?

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. The CDC also recommends commonsense preventive measures including:

How does the flu shot work?

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination that will provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

  • Seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.
  • Traditional flu vaccines (called “trivalent” vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses; an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus.
  • Quadrivalent” vaccines protect against four flu viruses: the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine and an additional B virus.

Is it too late for me to get a flu shot?

The CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible. But getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial and vaccination should continue to be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later.

Children who need two doses of vaccine to be protected should start the vaccination process sooner, because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart.

Who should get a flu shot?

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season as well as those at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications such as people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.

However, there are some people who should not get the flu vaccine such as children younger than 6 months or people with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine. Read the CDC’s Vaccination: Who Should Do It, Who Should Not and Who Should Take Precautions article for more information about flu vaccinations.

Keep in mind that the flu vaccine does not give you the flu but only stimulates your body to produce antibodies that protect you from flu viruses.

How do I know if I have the flu?

The flu is a primarily a respiratory disease, and not a stomach or intestinal disease, Unlike a cold, the flu usually comes on more suddenly and is more severe.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills (but not everyone with flu will have a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (very tired)

Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in young children than in adults.

If I get the flu, what should I do?

Most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.

If you have symptoms of flu and are in a high-risk group, or are very sick or worried about your illness, contact your health care provider (doctor, physician assistant, etc.). (Watch the CDC’s Warning Signs: Seasonal Flu video for more information.) Your doctor may also prescribe antivirals drugs.

You should also limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

Follow these tips to help avoid spreading the flu:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

How do I know if emergency medical treatment is needed?

The following signs indicate that you should call your healthcare practitioner

In children

  • Fast breathing, trouble breathing or bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:

  • Being unable to eat
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

In adults

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and a worse cough

For More Information

CDC – Seasonal Influenza, More Information

CDC – Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine

CDC – Key Facts About Influenza (Flu)

CDC – Treatment

New York State Department of Health – What You Should Know About the Flu

Parton Center for Health and Wellness – Influenza: Everything You Need To Know!

Vermont Department of Health – Treating The Flu

WebMD – Flu Season: What to Know This Year