Related Items

The Flu (Influenza)

Updated for the 2021-2022 flu season

The flu (influenza) is a viral infection that affects your respiratory tract. The respiratory tract is made up of your mouth, nose, and lungs, and the passages between them. Unlike a cold, the flu can make you very ill. It may lead to pneumonia, a serious lung infection. The flu can have serious complications and even cause death.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts strongly advise getting a flu vaccine during 2021-2022 to protect yourself, your family, and others. Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time. Flu viruses and the COVID-19 virus are both likely to spread during flu season. A flu vaccine will help save medical resources to care for people with COVID-19. People at high risk for complications from the flu are also likely to be at high risk for serious problems from COVID-19, so it's important to get a flu vaccine.

Front view of man's head and chest showing flu droplets being breathed into lungs.
Viruses that cause influenza spread through the air in droplets when someone who has the flu coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks.

Who is at risk for the flu?

Anyone can get the flu. But you are more likely to become infected if you:

  • Have a weak immune system

  • Work in a healthcare setting where you may be exposed to flu germs

  • Live or work with someone who has the flu

  • Haven’t had the flu vaccine as advised

How does the flu spread?

The flu is caused by a virus. The virus spreads 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 from an infected person can expose you to flu viruses, too.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and may last a few days to a few weeks. They include:

  • Fever usually higher than 100.4° F  ( 38°C ) and chills

  • Sore throat and headache

  • Dry cough

  • Runny nose

  • Tiredness and weakness

  • Muscle aches

Who is at risk for flu complications?

For some people, the flu can be very serious. The risk for complications is greater for:

  • Children younger than age 5

  • Adults ages 65 and older

  • People with a chronic illness such as diabetes or heart, kidney, or lung disease

  • People with a weak immune system such as those with HIV, AIDS, or cancer, or those who have had a transplant or are taking immune suppressing medicines

  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility

How is the flu treated?

The flu usually gets better after 7 days or so. In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine. This may help you get well sooner. It also may reduce the risk for and severity of complications. For the medicine to help, you need to take it as soon as possible (ideally within 48 hours) after your symptoms start.

If you develop pneumonia or other serious illness, you may need to stay in the hospital.

Easing flu symptoms

  • Drink lots of fluids such as water, juice, and warm soup. A good rule is to drink enough so that you urinate your normal amount.

  • Get plenty of rest.

  • Ask your healthcare provider what to take for fever and pain. Don't give aspirin to children under 18 years of age. It can cause the serious illness Reye syndrome.

  • Call your provider if your fever is 100.4° F ( 38°C ) or higher, or you become dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath.

Taking steps to protect others

  • Wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing. Or clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand cleaner containing at least 60% 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 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 medicine.

  • Don’t share food, utensils, drinking glasses, or a toothbrush with others.

How can the flu be prevented?

  • One of the best ways to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all people 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine every year. This includes pregnant women. Healthcare providers advise getting the flu vaccine each year as soon as it's available in your area.

  • Flu virus strains change from year to year, so the vaccine changes yearly to help prevent flu viruses predicted to cause illness during the upcoming flu season. For the 2021-2022 influenza season, the vaccine is available in different forms. It's most often given as a shot into the muscle. A nasal spray is available for healthy, non-pregnant people between ages 2 and 49 years. A needle-free form called a jet injector delivers the vaccine through the skin into the muscle through a high-pressure stream. This form may be an option for some people ages 18 to 64. Your healthcare provider can tell you which vaccine is right for you.

  • Wash your hands often. Frequent handwashing is a proven way to help prevent the spread of infection.

  • Carry an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol. Use it when you can't use soap and water. Then wash your hands as soon as you can.

  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

  • At home and work, clean phones, computer keyboards, and toys often with disinfectant wipes.

  • If possible, don't have close contact with others who have the flu or symptoms of the flu.

Handwashing tips

Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent many common infections. If you are caring for or visiting someone with the flu, wash your hands each time you enter and leave the room. Follow these steps:

  • Use clean, running water and plenty of soap. Rub your hands together well.

  • Clean the whole hand, including under your nails, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least 20 seconds.

  • 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.

Using alcohol-based hand cleaners

Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. Follow these steps:

  • Apply enough of the cleanser on your hands to cover all surfaces.

  • 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. This should take about 20 seconds.

Preventing the flu in healthcare settings

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:

  • Healthcare 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.

  • People who are at high risk for the flu but don't have it are encouraged to get the flu and pneumonia vaccines.

  • All healthcare workers are encouraged or required to get flu shots.

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Powered by CalViva