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Symptoms and treatment for the flu

Every year, over one million Americans are affected by influenza, commonly known as the flu. For most, it is a relatively minor (though unpleasant and inconvenient) episode, but for some, it is a life-threatening illness. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk for complications.

Simple precautions such as washing your hands and avoiding those who are ill can help reduce your risk of exposure, but health professionals often recommend a flu vaccine as the surest way to stay healthy.

Cold and Flu Defense

Flu shots are now available in most areas of the United States. The flu shot is a one-time injection containing three inactivated influenza viruses. These viruses will not cause the flu, but will stimulate the development of antibodies to stave off later infection.

The best time to get vaccinated is at the beginning of flu season (October), but the vaccine can still be beneficial in January or even later – flu season can last as late as May.

Other keys to preventing flu, as well as the common cold, are:

  1. Avoid others who are ill (and avoid making others ill by staying home from school or work if you are sick).
  2. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Use a tissue or the crook of your elbow rather than your hand to avoid spreading germs after the fact.
  3. Wash your hands frequently, using soap and warm water. Sing the ABCs to help ensure you're washing long enough. (An alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do in a pinch.)

Flu Symptoms

If, despite taking precautions, you feel yourself getting ill, it is essential to distinguish between the flu and the common cold. The symptoms tend to be similar, so it's easy confuse the two. However, cold and flu are treated differently, so knowing which you have is important.

Unlike a cold, flu often presents itself quickly and intensely. The general fatigue and weakness that is characteristic of both is often more pronounced with flu, and it tends to last longer (up to three weeks).

Fever is one of the hallmarks of flu, particularly if it is high (100 to 102 F) and persistent (lasting three to four days). Headache and general pains are also quite common. Chest discomfort and cough, often mild with a cold, can become quite severe and may even develop into bronchitis or pneumonia, common complications of influenza.

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are often associated with the flu, but they are not actually symptoms of the influenza virus. Rather, they are caused by a variety of other viruses that attack the stomach and intestines, causing viral gastroenteritis. Despite the fact that the influenza virus is not to blame, viral gastroenteritis is often referred to as the stomach flu.

Flu Treatment

Flu treatment depends on the symptoms present. Acetaminophen can help treat fever, headache and general aches and pains, and a cough syrup can help suppress coughs. Antihistamines can help relieve a runny nose while a decongestant will help clear a stuffy one.

Because the flu can present itself in so many ways, it's best to discuss your symptoms with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication.

As always, proper rest and plenty of fluids are the keys to a quick recovery.

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