Influenza (commonly called "the flu") is a contagious illness caused by viruses that infect the respiratory system (nose, throat, bronchial passages, and lungs). It can cause mild or serious illness, and in some people it can be life threatening. The flu is different from the common cold.
Complications of influenza are pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Complications are more likely in pregnant women, persons with asthma and other chronic medical conditions, children and the elderly.
The influenza virus is very contagious, and spreads easily from person to person. There are antiviral medications that can be taken to decrease symptoms and shorten the course, but these are only effective if started in the first two days of symptoms. Most healthy young adults recover without any treatment other than those for relief of symptoms. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated (the flu shot) each year.
The symptoms of the flu usually start suddenly and are more severe than a cold. The main symptoms of the flu are fever (temperature over 100.4° F or 38 C), muscle or body aches, and a harsh cough. Other symptoms may include runny nose, sore throat, headaches, fatigue, and occasionally vomiting or diarrhea, though these last symptoms are more common in children.
The symptoms of the flu usually improve after 4-5 days, but may take up to 2 weeks to completely resolve.
If you suspect that you have the flu, or are diagnosed with influenza by your healthcare provider, you should follow these instructions:
- Isolate yourself until the fever is gone for 24 hours without the use of medication:
- Stay home, do not go to class, and do not go out
- Stay 6 feet away from others
- Cover your cough
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing
- E-mail, text, or call your professors to explain your absence from class
- Take your temperature with a thermometer (you can get one from the Health Center pharmacy)
- If your temperature is greater than 100°F or 37.7°C, stay in bed
- Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil) as directed on the bottle label to reduce any fever or body aches
- Over-the-counter cough or cold medicines may be used if you wish, but will not make the flu go away or shorten the duration of symptoms
- Eat normal foods as tolerated, there is no need for any specific restrictions
- Watch for signs of more severe illness (below)
Signs of severe illness
If you have these symptoms, you should be seen by a healthcare provider immediately:
- Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Bluish or gray skin color
- Dehydration (not drinking enough fluids)
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Flu symptoms improved but then returned with fever and worsening cough
If any of these symptoms of severe illness occur, you should be evaluated at the Health Center the same day, or if the Health Center is closed, at a local urgent care center or hospital emergency room.
Learn more by visiting the Centers for Disease Control website.