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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.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD
4-minute read
Episode #104

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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Medical Disclaimer
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.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education. 

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