Is it the flu or is it a cold? The question comes up every autumn and winter, when respiratory illnesses are common. One of the main differences between a flu and a cold is that flu symptoms are harsher and last longer -- in some cases, for weeks. Because flu symptoms can be so painful, and can be dangerous in some cases, it's important to get a flu vaccine every year if possible. If you do end up with the flu, it's also important to know that in most cases the best treatment is treating yourself right -- resting, drinking fluids, and letting the virus run its course.
Symptoms of the flu include chills, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, sweating, and loss of appetite. People with the flu may have a stuffy nose, sore throat, and a cough. Flu can provoke a high fever -- over 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Children with the flu often vomit or have diarrhea, although influenza is different from the common children's ailment "stomach flu," which is usually caused by another type of virus or by food poisoning. Children also tend to get higher fevers than adults, with temperatures running as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Flu symptoms usually appear about 1 to 7 days after a person comes into contact with the flu virus. Once the symptoms appear, the flu victim will have a high fever for 3 to 4 days. Even after the fever subsides, people who have had the flu may feel run-down, sometimes for as long as 3 weeks after first developing flu symptoms. It's important to take it easy as much as possible while you're recovering from the flu -- you'll recover more quickly and you'll be less likely to develop complications.
For the majority of people, having the flu is a nasty experience, but one that they'll live through with no permanent effects. However, certain groups of people are at risk of developing severe complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. Most of these groups of people have undeveloped or weaker immune systems: infants and young children, people on medications that weaken the immune system, HIV patients, and people over the age of 50. Pregnant women are also vulnerable to the flu.
Because flu can be so dangerous to certain people, and because it's a painful experience for anyone to go through, many people decide to get a flu vaccine to lower their chances of catching it. "The flu" is actually caused by several types of influenza viruses. Each year, the flu vaccine is different, as it will contain the viruses deemed most dangerous for that flu season. Getting a flu shot can protect you from catching the most common types of flu. Practicing proper hygiene, such as washing hands and covering the mouth when sneezing, can also cut down on flu transmission.
For most people, there's no need to treat the flu -- the immune system will eventually kill off the virus. While the immune system is hard at work, patients can take medications for aches, fever, and congestion (although aspirin should be avoided). It's important to drink lots of liquids and to rest. Don't take antibiotics, as they won't kill off the flu virus and will make your body less able to fight off future bacterial infections. People who are at risk of complications can take antiviral medication, although this treatment will only shorten the duration of symptoms by about a day.