Human influenza or “the flu” is a respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. It typically starts with a headache, chills and cough. This is followed rapidly by fever, loss of appetite, muscle aches and fatigue, running nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur, especially in children.  “The flu” can often be confused with the common cold; however there are some differences.

A cold is a mild infection of the nose, throat and airways that is caused by a variety of viruses. A cold may last for a week and symptoms include a runny nose, stuffy nose, cough and sore throat. A person with a cold will not usually have a headache, fever or muscle aches.  Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea do not usually accompany a cold.

The influenza virus spreads through contact with droplets coming from someone who has the flu. You can also get the flu by shaking hands with an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces, and then touching your own eyes, nose or mouth. (So avoiding people and being anti-social may not protect you.)

Most people will recover from influenza within a week or ten days, but some are at greater risk of more severe complications, such as pneumonia. This group includes those over 65 and adults and children with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer. If you know one of these high risk individuals, getting the flu shot helps to further reduce the chance that you will spread the virus to them.

The best protection against influenza is getting the flu shot every year and frequent hand washing or hand hygiene with alcohol hand rubs. When you get the flu shot, your body’s immune system develops protection (antibodies) against the strains of the virus in the vaccine. Each year, the virus mutates and changes and the vaccine is tailored to try and meet these changes. This is why it is important to be immunized each fall.  While some people may feel slight side effects from the vaccine, it is important to know that you cannot get the flu from a flu shot.  Where can you get your shot?  Your doctor or your pharmacist. For those over 65 or at high risk, there is a high dose vaccine only available from your doctor.  Take care of yourselves and each other.