Flu, short for influenza, is a common illness that is caused by the influenza virus. It is infectious and is spread through droplets from flu-infected people coughing and sneezing. Flu is different from the common cold in that symptoms of flu are typically more severe and longer-lasting. Flu can be caught at any time of year but is most common in winter, which is why it is sometimes referred to as seasonal flu.
Symptoms of flu typically begin a couple of days after you have been infected and generally peak after three days. However, it is not unusual to feel unwell – fatigue and a lingering cough are common – for up to a week after. Symptoms of flu include:
- a fever – usually sudden and reaching 100.4°F (38°c) or above.
- blocked or a runny nose
- joint pain and muscle ache
- dry/ chesty cough
- sore throat
- loss of appetite
Complications of flu are fairly uncommon in healthy adults but are a possible risk for certain groups, this includes pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people who have an underlying health condition and weakened immune systems.
One of the most common complications of flu is pneumonia, a bacterial chest infection. Pneumonia is usually treated with antibiotics but in some cases can be serious and life-threatening. Other, less common complications can also arise, such as inflammation of the brain, ear infections, inflamed sinuses, fluid build-up in the ear and tonsillitis.
If you are a healthy adult with the flu, it is unnecessary for you to see your doctor. Although, if your symptoms last longer than a week, you cough up blood, have chest pain, suffer from shortness of breath or are in a high-risk group for complications, then it is important that you see a doctor. Your doctor will diagnosis flu based on your symptoms.
Since flu is a virus it does not usually require treatment. It will run its course and symptoms should clear up within a few days. Antibiotics are not used to treat flu, the flu is a virus and antibiotics will have no effect. The aim of treatment, if any, is to manage symptoms, ease discomfort and prevent any possible complications. If you have the flu it is recommended that you stay at home to prevent the virus from spreading. Treatment should include:
- plenty of rest
- lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
- ibuprofen, acetaminophen (paracetamol) or aspirin to lower temperature and ease any aches and pains
- lozenges or hard-boiled sweets containing menthol to soothe a sore or dry throat
- a decongestant for a blocked nose
If you are in a high-risk group and there is a chance of complication, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. Antiviral medication does not get rid of the virus, instead it prevents it from multiplying in the body; this is typically used to reduce the severity of symptoms.