You know what cooler weather means: the start of flu season! This highly contagious viral infection can cause symptoms like fever, congestion, sore throat, and body aches. Occasionally, it can also lead to life-threatening complications. There’s no cure for the flu, but getting a flu shot every year can lower your risk of getting sick. Influenza poses a significant burden to society, sickening millions of people every year. But getting an annual flu shot remains the best way to lower your risk of falling ill and possibly developing serious complications.
From October to May, we’re all at heightened risk of catching the flu, aka an influenza virus.
These cooler winter months are prime time for them to circulate. Anyone, no matter how healthy, can catch the flu. If you’re infected, your symptoms can come on without warning. General signs like chills, fever, and a runny nose usually run their course within a week, while other symptoms—like extreme fatigue— may take up to two weeks to go away.
Most people recover from the flu, but in some cases, it can cause severe complications, worsen health conditions you already have, or be fatal. The 1918 flu pandemic took more lives than any other disease outbreak in history—some experts estimate the global death toll was between 50 and 100 million people.
Like all viruses, influenza viruses need new hosts to survive. Because of that, they’re constantly changing in an effort to evade immunity and continue to spread.
Although we all say we’re sick with “the” flu, it’s more accurate to say that you’re sick with a strain of the flu virus. Over 60 strains have already been identified.
What causes the flu ?
The flu spreads through tiny respiratory droplets that escape someone’s mouth or nose when they sneeze, cough, talk, or laugh. If a droplet ends up in your nose or mouth, you can become infected.
Most people who have the flu can infect others the day before they develop any symptoms. (And not everyone will show outward signs of being sick.) This infectious period continues up to a week after your symptoms begin. Children and people with weak immune systems can be contagious for even longer.
The flu virus can live on some surfaces for up to 48 hours, so if you come into contact with it, then touch your fingers to your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could get sick. Still, this isn’t how most people catch the flu.
What types of flu ?
There are actually four types of influenza viruses—A, B, C, and D—but only strains from the A and B types cause annual flu outbreaks.
Influenza A: Two strains of this type (H1N1 and H3N2) are known to affect people, and are always included in the annual flu vaccine. Influenza A viruses are the ones that have been responsible for global flu pandemics.
Influenza B: Although this type of influenza is less likely to make you severely ill, one strain of it is always chosen to be included in the flu vaccine.
Influenza C: If you’re infected with an influenza C virus, you may have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. This category of viruses is also less common than A and B types.
Influenza D: Type D strains only affect cattle, not people.
What are the symptoms ?
While colds come on gradually, the flu can hit without much warning. Once you’re infected, you could experience:
- A fever
- Dry cough
- Eye pain
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Body aches
- Muscle pain
Some people also have vomiting or diarrhea, although these are more likely to happen in children. Less common—but more serious—flu symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Severe body pain
If you have any of these symptoms, or a chronic health issue worsens while you have the flu, it’s important to see your doctor right way because some people who get the flu can have complications like bronchitis, pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and even inflammation of your heart or brain.
Most people don’t need medical treatment for the flu—your immune system should be able to fight off the influenza virus without help.
If you have a mild case, staying home so you can take care of yourself and not infect others is a good idea. Get lots of rest, stay hydrated, and use over-the-counter products to relieve some of your symptoms.
Antiviral drugs can’t prevent complications from the flu. If you start feeling worse, see your doctor right away. Other medications may be necessary.