The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, affecting the nose, throat and lungs and can cause mild to severe illness and even death. Vaccination is the best way to prevent it. While most people recover, some groups are at a higher risk of complications, including those with certain health conditions.


Influenza can cause mild to severe symptoms. Here are some of the common symptoms of the flu:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

How Flu Spreads

Experts believe flu viruses are spread through small droplets produced during coughing, sneezing or talking, which can land in nearby people’s mouths or noses. Less frequently, individuals may contract the flu by touching a surface or object with the virus and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.

Period of Contagiousness

The flu can be spread before symptoms appear or even during the illness. People with flu are most contagious in the first 3–4 days of illness, but healthy adults can infect others one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Young children and those with weakened immune systems may be able to infect others for an even longer period of time.

Onset of Symptoms

The flu typically begins two days after exposure and infection, with symptoms ranging from one to four days.

Complications of Flu

The flu can lead to complications like bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions like congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.

People at Higher Risk of Flu

The flu can affect anyone, even healthy individuals and serious complications can occur at any age. However, certain groups, such as those 65 years and older, those with chronic medical conditions, pregnant individuals and children under 5 years, particularly those under 2 years old are at a higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications.


The flu vaccine is the most crucial step in preventing the flu, as it reduces flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious complications. Daily preventive actions like staying away from sick people, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequent hand washing will slow the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu.


Flu is a difficult respiratory illness to differentiate from other viruses or bacteria. Symptoms alone cannot distinguish it from other respiratory illnesses. Common tests include ”rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs)”, which detect the virus’s antigens that stimulate an immune response. These tests can provide results within 10-15 minutes but may not be as accurate as other flu tests. ”Rapid molecular assays” detect the virus’s genetic material in 15-20 minutes and are more accurate than RIDTs. Other more accurate flu tests require specialized laboratories, such as hospital and public health labs and require a healthcare provider to swab the inside of the nose or throat. Results may take one to several hours.


Flu antiviral drugs are medications that can be used to treat flu-related illnesses. The CDC recommends four FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs for use against recently circulating influenza viruses. These drugs work best when started within two days of getting sick, but can be started later if the person is at higher risk of serious complications or is in the hospital with more severe illness. The drugs include oseltamivir phosphate, zanamivir, peramivir and baloxavir marboxil. It is important to follow the instructions of your health care provider before taking these drugs.

How do I manage symptoms of the flu at home

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Keep your self well hydrated (drink fluids like water or broth to help prevent dehydration).
  • Applying heat packs can help with aching muscles.
  • Spray or oral decongestants like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine can alleviate a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Spray or oral decongestants like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine can alleviate a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Acetaminophen or NSAIDs can help reduce fever and alleviate head and body aches by reducing the use of Tylenol®.
  • Guaifenesin is an expectorant that aids in the efficient removal of mucus from the lungs.

Consult your provider before using certain OTCs, check if they’re safe to use together or with supplements and avoid giving aspirin to children under 16 unless their provider approves it, as not everyone should take them.

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