The Flu (Influenza)

Influenza is a respiratory infection cause by multiple viruses. There are two main types of influenza virus: Types A and B. The influenza A and B viruses regularly spread in people and are responsible for seasonal flu epidemics each year. The viruses pass through the air and enter the body through your nose or mouth. Between 5% and 20% of people in the US get the flu each year. That is potentially one out of five people, regardless of overall health.  The flu can be serious or even deadly for elderly people, newborn babies, and people with certain chronics illness.

When is Flu Season

Seasonal flu viruses are detected year-round in the United States. However, flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter. The exact timing and duration of flu season can vary, but influenza activity often begins to increase in October. Most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, although activity can last as late as May. 
  • Symptoms
  • How the Flu Spreads
  • How Long Are You Contagious
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Feeling feverish and chills
  • Cough
  • Fever*
  • Headache
  • Sore Throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
*It’s important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

The flu can spread person to person. People with the flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possible be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by toughing a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possible their eyes. 

People with the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children and some people with weakened immune systems may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms can begin about 2 days (but can range from 1 to 4 days) after the virus enter the body. That means that you may be able to pass the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others.

Prevention (The Flu Shot)

The best way to prevent the seasonal flu is to get vaccinated every year. The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against influenza. Anyone 6 months or older can receive the flu shot or inhaler. Vaccinations are important for health care workers and people who live or care for infants or the elderly. 

The flu vaccine protects against the 3 – 4 viruses that research shows will be most common. It can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to the flu. The flu shot has also shown to significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza. Once you receive the flu vaccine, it can take up to two weeks to take affect. The most common side affects are mild soreness, redness, or swelling where you get the shot. Research suggests that someone who gets the flu after vaccination will have milder symptoms and be sick for a shorter amount of time. 

Eligible members and their dependents can get the flu shot through their prescription benefits at no additional cost. 

every day preventive actions to stop the spread of germs.

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people
  • While sick, limit contact with other as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
  • If you are sick with flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medication.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. After using the tissue, throw it in the trash and wash your hands. 
  •  Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

Take flu antiviral drugs, if your doctor prescribes them. If you get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs can be used to treat your illness. Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics and are available through a prescription from a medical professional. They are not available over-the-counter. 

Antiviral drugs can make illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They may also prevent serious flu complications. Treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay for those with high-risk factors. 

People At High Risk

Most people who get sick with flu will have a mild illness, will not need medical care or antiviral drugs, and will recover in less than two weeks. Some people, however, are more likely to get flu complications that can result in hospitalization and sometimes death. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections are examples of flu-related complications. The flu also can make chronic health problems worse.

High-Risk People

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2
  • Adults 65 or older
  • Pregnant women
  • Residents at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • Infants younger than 6 months (too young to be vaccinated )

People with medical conditions are at high-risk:

  • Asthma
  • Neurological and neurodevelopment conditions
  • Chronic lung disease (COPD)
  • Heart disease
  • Blood disorders (Sickle cell)
  • Endocrine disorders (diabetes)
  • Kidney disorders
  • Liver disorders
  • Metabolic disorders
  • People with weakened immune systems due to disease or medication (Cancer, HIV/AIDS, or those on chronic steroids)
  • People younger than 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • People with extreme obesity

Emergency Warning Signs

Anyone can get sick with the flu (even healthy people).  Serious health problems related to flu can happen at any age. Contact your doctor if any of the symptoms occur. 

  • In Children
  • In Adults
  • In Infants
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve, but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash 
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with fever and worse cough

In addition to the additional signs, get medical help right away for any INFANT who has any of these signs:

  • Being unable to eat
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

Is it the Flu or a cold?

Signs and Symptoms

Symptom Onset
Fever
Aches
Chills
Fatigue, weakness
Sneezing
Stuffy nose
Sore throat
Chest discomfort, cough
Headache

Influenza

Abrupt
Usual; last 3-4 days
Usual; often severe
Fairly common
Usual
Sometimes
Sometimes
Sometimes
Common; can be severe
Common

Cold

Gradual
Rare
Slight
Uncommon
Sometimes
Common
Common
Common
Mild to Moderate; hacking cough
Rare

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and MedlinePlus.gov

Resources

Links to various resources on the topics discuss on this page.