Influenza is a contagious viral infection that affects the nose, throat and lungs. Usually just called the flu, influenza is a different type of virus than the “stomach flu” that causes nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Although influenza is thought of as a common and mild illness, the complications can become severe in some people.
The University of Kansas Health System is part of an academic medical center that’s connected to ongoing research, including data on the control and spread of respiratory viruses like influenza and COVID-19. Through access to clinical trials, our patients are often among the first to benefit from new treatment and vaccination options.
What is influenza?
Influenza is a contagious illness that can spread easily from person to person. Millions of Americans get sick from the flu each year. Symptoms of the flu affect the upper respiratory tract and can range from quite mild to very severe. Flu complications can even lead to death in those people who are most at risk.
Treatments for influenza focus on managing the symptoms or getting a flu vaccine to prevent the illness in the first place.
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Types of influenza
There are 3 types of influenza that affect humans:
Influenza symptoms and risks
Although flu symptoms can present differently in different people, the signs of influenza usually include:
- Chills or sweats
- Congestion or runny nose
- Dry cough
- Feeling achy
- Feeling tired or weak
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
Flu symptoms are similar to those of the common cold; however, cold symptoms are usually milder than influenza symptoms. Cold symptoms also tend to develop more slowly compared to the flu.
Some people carry a higher risk of developing more serious complications from influenza:
- Adults over the age of 65
- Children under the age of 5
- Infants under 6 months
- People with compromised immune systems
- People with chronic illnesses like asthma, kidney disease or diabetes
- People who are obese
- Women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth (within 2 weeks)
Residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes are also considered high risk for severe influenza complications. Native Americans have a higher risk of flu complications as well.
Influenza diagnosis and screening
Because influenza is so widespread, most doctors do not test specifically for the flu beyond performing a physical exam and taking your medical history. In some cases, your doctor may order a test to confirm the presence of the influenza virus.
Most people with flu symptoms get better on their own without needing to visit a doctor. The at-home remedies most often recommended to get rid of flu symptoms include:
- Drinking plenty of water and other fluids
- Getting plenty of rest
- Taking hot showers or baths or using a humidifier
With your doctor’s approval, you can also use over-the-counter medications to help with congestion or pain relief. While you’re showing symptoms, you should stay at home to make sure you’re not spreading the flu to others.
For severe influenza infections, your doctor may recommend an antiviral medication.
To avoid getting sick in the first place, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends everyone older than 6 months get a flu shot each year. Although the flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get the flu, getting an annual influenza vaccine is currently the best prevention.