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What is influenza?

Influenza, or the flu, is caused by a virus. The flu virus, which easily spreads from person to person through coughs and sneezes, affects people of all ages. Most people who get it are sick for only a few days, but others get sick enough to need medical care, and some die. Older adults and people with weak immune systems or chronic illnesses are especially likely to become seriously ill. Fever, headache, tiredness, sore throat, dry cough, chills, and body aches are typical signs and symptoms of the flu.


How is influenza treated?

Antiviral drugs can ease flu symptoms and help you recover faster if you start taking them within 2 days of your first flu symptoms. A healthcare provider must prescribe these medicines, which usually are given to people who are most at risk for serious complications from the flu; for example, adults age 65 and older, children ages 12 to 23 months, and anyone with chronic health problems, such as diabetes.


Other over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce the discomfort from certain flu symptoms, such as fever and chills. But vitamin C, chicken soup, and herbal supplements haven't been proven to help people recover from the flu. Drink plenty of water and juice and eat a balanced diet. You need more fluids than usual when you have the flu, and eating gives your body energy to fight the flu. Avoid alcohol and tobacco.


Should I get a flu vaccine?

Almost anyone who wants protection from the flu should get a vaccine every year. But getting the vaccine is especially important if you're at risk for serious illness. If you have a serious illness and need the flu vaccine, anyone who lives with you should also get the vaccine. Talk with your healthcare provider to see if you and your family should get the flu vaccine each year.


Flu season starts as early as October and ends in April. The best time to get a flu vaccine is early in the flu season because full protection takes about 2 weeks. But getting the vaccine after November still protects you, and this protection can last for up to a year. Because flu viruses change often, you need to get a vaccine every year. The vaccine isn't 100% effective, but it can reduce the severity of symptoms if you do get the flu.


The vaccine can be given as a shot or as a nasal spray. Talk with your healthcare provider to find out which type is better for you. Tell her if you have a severe allergy to chicken eggs or if you've had a serious reaction to a flu vaccine in the past so she can choose a safe treatment for you.


If you're sick on the day you're supposed to get a flu vaccine, you may need to wait until you feel better before you get it. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether you need to reschedule the vaccine.


Can the flu vaccine make me sick?

You can't get the flu from a flu vaccine because it's made from a killed or weakened virus. But if you get a shot, you may notice mild swelling, redness, or soreness where the vaccine was given. Some people develop fever and aches or mild symptoms such as a runny nose, headaches, or muscle aches after the nasal spray vaccine. These problems usually last 1 or 2 days and go away on their own.


Very rarely, the vaccine can cause an allergic reaction. If you develop a high fever, difficulty breathing, a feeling as if your heart is racing, or dizziness, call 911. Tell the paramedics that you had a flu vaccine and when you got it.


What else can I do to prevent the flu?

Besides getting a flu vaccine, you can reduce your flu risk by:


* avoiding close contact with people who have respiratory symptoms such as coughing


* staying home when you're sick


* washing your hands often


* not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth because this is how germs get into your body


* practicing other good health habits, including getting plenty of sleep, staying active, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating healthy foods.