What Is the Flu Virus?

Learn about the various types of flu strains that you can catch this year. Plus, find out who is most at risk for complications and how to treat symptoms.

Sanaz Majd, MD
November 28, 2013
Episode #104

What Is the Flu Virus?

It’s that time of year again – when our noses start to drain, our throats feel like we swallowed a golf ball, and our muscles feel like we aged 30 years. Yes, it’s flu season. And not only have I already seen a few patients trickle through with the seasonal flu, but I am also suffering from one right now as I sit down to write and record this episode (cough, cough). And since the flu season has officially begun, I thought now would be a good time to learn more about this nasty bug.

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What is the Flu?

The flu is a virus (not bacteria!) that spreads mostly from person to person, and typically around the fall through spring months. There are various types, depending on the type of protein that the virus carries on its capsule, or outer covering. Here are the most common:

  • Influenza A: One type of seasonal flu that occurs in birds and some mammals.

  • Influenza B: Another type of seasonal flu that occurs mainly in mammals and seals.

  • Influenza C: A much rarer type of seasonal flu that can create local epidemics.

  • Avian Flu: Spread from birds to humans in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

  • Swine Flu: Otherwise known as H1N1, it’s spread from pigs to humans in the U.S.

The flu doesn’t typically have long term consequences in most people, and often resolves on its own. However, in rare cases, it can be fatal and causes 10,000 to 50,000 deaths a year. For that reason it’s important to prevent it from spreading as much as possible.

Symptoms of the Flu

Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Malaise
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dry cough
  • Less common symptoms of the flu (and more common in the common cold) are:
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

Who Gets the Flu?

Both children and adults are affected by the flu virus, and it is often transmitted from person to person (and in rare instances, from animals to humans). It is spread either by direct contact (by coming into contact with the virus released from an infected person’s mouth or nasal discharge) or from respiratory particles breathed in the air. It takes up to 4 days for symptoms to develop. Adults are contagious from one day prior to when symptoms develop until 5-10 days after symptoms abate. 

Certain groups of patients need to be extra careful not to contract the flu virus since complications are greater for:

  • Smokers

  • Children under age 2

  • Adults over age 65

  • Pregnant women

  • Patients with chronic lung, heart, kidney, and liver problems

  • Diabetics

  • Asthma sufferers

  • Patients with neurologic disorders

  • Stroke patients

  • People with HIV or other immune compromised conditions

  • People who take medications that suppress the immune system (like for rheumatoid arthritis or those with organ transplants).

How is the Flu Treated?

The flu virus, like other viral illnesses, is often self-limiting and resolves on its own within 7-10 days. Antibiotics don’t work for viruses, only for bacteria, unfortunately. There are antiviral medications, but they’re only recommended for patients who are hospitalized for flu complications, have severe and progressive illnesses, or have a higher risk of complications. But antiviral medications are rarely prescribed because they need to be started within 48 hours of when symptoms begin, or they don’t work very well.

Mainly, we treat flu symptoms rather than the root cause. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen) help reduce fever, headache, and body aches; while decongestants help nasal symptoms and lozenges, throat sprays, and salt-water gargles treat sore throats. Like with other illnesses, lots of fluids and rest are key to recovery. Most people are contagious until 24 hours after the fever breaks, so try to come into contact with as few people as possible during that time.

See also: Can You Exercise When You’re Sick?

The Flu Vaccine

At this time, there is no cure for the flu, unfortunately. But there is a good way to prevent it – by getting the flu vaccine every fall. The flu vaccine is created every year in a lab by studying the different types of flu virus that are headed towards us, and then inactivating those viruses. Once you receive the injection, your body mounts an immune response to those particles and if it ever sees the virus itself, it will attack and eradicate it before it manifests. There is no live virus in the vaccine, and therefore, the vaccine cannot give you the flu, contrary to popular belief. The flu vaccine is recommended for those aged 6 months and up.

Check out Everyday Einstein’s episode on the MMR Vaccine and Autism

Do you get your flu shot every year? Tell us why you or why not on House Call Doctor’s Facebook and Twitter pages!

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Little Girl Blowing Her Nose and Man Receiving Flu Vaccine images courtesy of Shutterstock

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