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Influenza (“the flu”) is an infection that affects your respiratory tract (the mouth, nose, and lungs, and the passages between them). Unlike a cold, the flu can make you very ill. And it can lead to pneumonia, a serious lung infection. For some people, especially older adults, the flu can be fatal. This sheet tells you more about the flu and what you can do to avoid infection.

Outline of human head and chest with head turned to side. Inside of nose, airway, and lungs are visible. Droplets with virus are being breathed in to nose and lungs.
Viruses that cause influenza spread through the air in droplets when someone who has the flu coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks.

What are the risk factors for the flu?

Anyone can get the flu. That is why the latest guidelines recommend that everyone older than 6 months of age get vaccinated. You’re more likely to become infected if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system.

  • Have frequent, close contact with young children.

  • Work in a healthcare setting where you may be exposed to flu germs.

  • Live or work with someone who has the flu.

  • Haven’t received an annual flu shot.

How does the flu spread?

The flu is caused by viruses (germs). You can become infected when you inhale these germs directly. You can also become infected when you touch a surface on which the droplets containing germs have landed and then transfer the germs to your eyes, nose, or mouth. Touching used tissues, or sharing utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush with an infected person can expose you to flu germs, too.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and may last a few days to a few weeks. They include:

  • Fever and chills

  • Sore throat and headache

  • Dry cough

  • Runny nose

  • Tiredness and weakness

  • Muscle aches

Factors that can make flu worse

For some people, the flu can be very serious. The risk of complications is greater for:

  • Children younger than age 5

  • Adults ages 50 and older

  • People with a chronic illness, such as diabetes, HIV, or heart, kidney, or lung disease

  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility

How is the flu treated?

Influenza usually improves on its own. In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine. This may help you get well more quickly. For the medicine to help, you need to take it as soon as possible after your symptoms start. If you develop pneumonia or other serious illness, hospital care may be needed.

Easing flu symptoms

  • Drink lots of fluids such as water, juice, and soup to prevent dehydration. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.

  • Get plenty of rest.

  • Ask your healthcare provider about acetaminophen or other medications for fever and pain. Take any medicine only as directed. Don’t give aspirin to children under age 18. It can cause a rare but serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.

  • Call your healthcare provider if your fever rises over 101°F or you become dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath.

Taking steps to protect others

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing. Or clean your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60 percent alcohol.

  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue. Then throw the tissue away and wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow.

  • Stay home until at least 24 hours after you no longer have a fever or chills. Be sure the fever isn’t being hidden by fever-reducing medication (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen).

  • Don’t share food, utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush with others.

  • Ask your healthcare provider whether others in your household should receive antiviral medication or flu vaccination to help them avoid infection.

How can the flu be prevented?

  • One of the best ways to avoid the flu is to get a flu vaccination each year. Viruses that cause the flu change from year to year. For that reason, healthcare providers recommend getting the flu vaccine each fall or winter. Most often, the vaccine is given as a shot. Your healthcare provider can tell you which vaccine is right for you.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Frequent handwashing is a proven way to prevent infection.

  • Carry an alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Use it when you don’t have access to soap and water. Alcohol rubs kill most germs and are safe for children.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • At home and work, clean phones, computer keyboards, and toys often with disinfectant wipes.

  • If possible, avoid close contact with others, especially children.

Handwashing tips

Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent many common infections. If you’re caring for or visiting someone with the flu, wash your hands each time you enter and leave the room. Follow these steps:

  • Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under your nails, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Don’t just wipe—scrub well.

  • Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.

  • Dry your hands well. In public restrooms, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

Learn more about handwashing and keeping your hands clean

Using alcohol-based hand rubs

Alcohol-based hand rubs are also a good choice for cleaning your hands. Use them when you don’t have access to soap and water, or your hands aren’t visibly dirty. Follow these steps:

  • Squeeze the appropriate amount of product based on the label into the palm of one hand.

  • Rub your hands together briskly, cleaning the backs of your hands, the palms, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Rub until the product is gone and your hands are completely dry.

Preventing influenza in health care settings

The flu is a special concern for people in hospitals and long-term care facilities. To help prevent the spread of flu, many hospitals and nursing homes take these steps:

  • Healthcare providers wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner before and after treating each patient.

  • People with the flu have private rooms and bathrooms or share a room with someone with the same infection.

  • High-risk (as well as other) patients who don’t have the flu may receive a flu shot to prevent illness.

  • All healthcare workers are encouraged to have flu shots.

  • Visitors with signs or symptoms of the flu and young children are discouraged from visiting.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 11/2/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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