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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, young children, and people with certain chronic conditions, the flu can have serious complications and even be fatal. This sheet tells you more about the flu and what you can do to avoid infection.
Anyone can get the flu. But you’re more likely to become infected if you:
Have a weakened immune system.
Have frequent, close contact with young children.
Work in a health care 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.
The flu is caused by viruses. The viruses spread through the air in droplets when someone who has the flu coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks. You can become infected when you inhale these viruses directly. You can also become infected when you touch a surface on which the droplets 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 viruses, too.
Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and may last a few days to a few weeks. They include:
Fever usually higher than 101°F (38.3°C) and chills
Sore throat and headache
Tiredness and weakness
For some people, the flu can be very serious. The risk of complications is greater for:
Children under age 5.
Adults 50 years of age and older.
People with a chronic illness, such as diabetes or heart, kidney, or lung disease.
People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
Influenza usually improves on its own. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. This may help you get well sooner. For the medication 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.
Drink lots of fluids such as water, juice, and warm soup to prevent dehydration. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.
Get plenty of rest.
Ask your doctor about acetaminophen or other medications for fever and pain. Take any medication 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 doctor if your fever rises over 101°F (38.3°C) or you become dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath.
Wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing. Or, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand gel 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).
Don’t share food, utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush with others.
Ask your doctor whether others in your household should receive antiviral medication to help them avoid infection.
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, doctors recommend getting the flu vaccine each fall or winter. Most often, the vaccine is given as a shot. But some people may receive the vaccine in nasal spray form instead. Your doctor can tell you which vaccine is right for you.
Wash your hands often. Frequent handwashing is a proven way to prevent infection.
Carry an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Use it when you don’t have access to soap and water. Alcohol gels 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.
If you’re 65 or older, smoke, or have a chronic health condition, ask your doctor if you should receive the pneumonia vaccine.
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 for at least 15 seconds. Don’t just wipe—scrub well.
Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.
Dry your hands well. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
Alcohol-based hand gels 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 about a tablespoon of gel 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 gel is gone and your hands are completely dry.
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:
Health care 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 patients who don’t have the flu may receive a flu shot and the pneumonia vaccine to prevent illness.
All health care workers are encouraged or required to have flu shots.