What is the flu?
Influenza, or the flu, is a viral infection that attacks the lungs, nose, and throat. It’s a contagious respiratory illness with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Because the flu and the common cold have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two illnesses. In most cases, flu symptoms are more severe and last longer than the common cold.
There are three different types of flu viruses: type A, type B, and type C
- Type A can infect animals and humans. This virus constantly evolves and can cause annual flu epidemics.
- Type B can also cause seasonal outbreaks during the winter months, but this type is typically less severe than type A and causes milder symptoms. Occasionally, type B can cause severe complications. Type B flu is caused by one strain of the flu whereas type a is a combination of strains.
- Type C flu only infects humans and causes mild symptoms and few complications.
The Difference Between the Cold and the Flu
The common cold and the flu may seem similar at first. They are both respiratory illnesses and can cause similar symptoms. But different viruses cause these two conditions. Your symptoms will help you tell the difference between the two.
People with either illness often experience:
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- General fatigue
At first, the flu can mimic a common cold. Early symptoms may include a sore throat, sneezing, or a runny nose. As a rule, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms. Colds rarely cause other health conditions or problems. But the flu can lead to sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, and sepsis. To determine whether your symptoms are from a cold or from the flu, you need to see your doctor. Your doctor will run tests that can help determine what’s behind your symptoms.
If your doctor diagnoses a cold, you’ll only need to treat your symptoms until the virus has run its course. These treatments can include using over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest. Taking an OTC flu medicine early in the virus’ cycle may also help. Rest and hydration are also beneficial for people with the flu. Much like the common cold, the flu just needs time to work its way through your body.
Symptoms of the Flu (often worsen as the virus progresses):
- Achy muscles
- Body chills
- A headache
- A dry cough
- Nasal congestion
The flu doesn’t usually require a trip to the doctor. Symptoms often improve with home treatment in about a week. You can relieve symptoms with over-the-counter cold and flu medicine. It’s also important to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. However, you can ask your doctor about antiviral drugs. Taken within the first 48 hours of symptoms, antivirals can reduce the length and severity of the flu.
What Causes the Flu
The flu is a virus that’s shared in several ways. First, you can pick up the virus from being near a person who has the flu and sneezes, coughs, or talks. The virus can live on inanimate objects for two to eight hours. If someone with the virus touched a common surface like a door handle or a keyboard, and you touch the same surface, you could get the virus. Once you have the virus on your hand, it can enter your body by touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.
You can vaccinate against the flu. An annual flu vaccine helps your body prepare for exposure to the virus. A flu shot helps you by activating your immune system to make antibodies against specific strains of the virus. Antibodies are what prevent infections. It’s possible to get the flu after receiving the flu shot if you meet other strains of the virus. Even then, it’s likely your symptoms will be much less severe than if you hadn’t had the vaccine at all. This is due to cross-protection. This means that different strains share common elements. And that allows the flu vaccine to work against them, too.