Influenza, commonly called the flu, occurs when a virus infects the upper respiratory tract. Most healthy patients recover from the flu without medical intervention, but very young, very old, and immunocompromised patients are at high risk of complications without medical treatment.
It’s important to note that while many people refer to gastrointestinal infections as the flu, these are two different conditions. The stomach flu is not influenza, and influenza vaccines don’t protect against the stomach flu.
The virus that causes influenza is highly contagious. This virus is airborne, which means that a person who has influenza releases the virus into the air when he or she coughs, sneezes, talks, or laughs. Then others breathe the virus in and become infected. Because patients are infectious 24 hours before their symptoms begin and as long as seven days after onset of symptoms, you don’t have to share space with somebody who appears to be sick to contract the virus.
The most common symptoms are rapid onset of chills, fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches, and cough. Many patients also experience intense exhaustion. If you’re having trouble deciding whether you have a common cold or influenza, the presence of severe fatigue and body aches will warrant further examination. These symptoms are unlikely to accompany a common cold.
While there’s no surefire way to avoid getting the flu, the single most impactful action you can take is to get your flu shot every fall. Being vaccinated decreases your risk of contracting influenza and reduces the likelihood of serious complication should you get influenza. Washing your hands frequently can also help you avoid the flu.
Anyone can develop complications from influenza, but those at significant risk are:
Patients who are immunocompromised are also at increased risk of serious complications.
Because flu complications can lead to death in these patient populations, immediate evaluation by a healthcare professional is required.
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