What is the Flu? Understanding and Preventing the Influenza Virus

Woman with baby with the flu
Photo: iStock 121522


The flu is similar to the common cold but has more severe symptoms. Its similarities also match that of Covid. Sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart since the symptoms of these illnesses affect the nose, throat, and lungs. 

Doctors can diagnose if you have the flu and not Covid. The process is similar to a Covid test where they would swab your nose with a cotton wad. Many medical facilities will be able to get the result within 15 minutes.

The flu, AKA influenza virus, is a serious infectious disease that affects thousands of people worldwide each year. While the symptoms of the flu can range from mild to severe, it can be potentially life-threatening for some, especially those who are immune compromised.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and treat the virus, and understanding what this disease is, how it spreads, and which symptoms to look out for can help protect you, so let’s delve into what exactly the flu is and what we can do to prevent getting it. This applies to Covid as well. 

What is the Flu?

Influenza is a viral infection that causes inflammation in the respiratory system. It can infect people of all ages but is most likely to cause illness among people ages 2 to 49. Its symptoms are similar to Covid and the main difference is that the flu is part of the influencer virus and Covid originates from the SARS-CoV-2 family whose genetic coding differentiates itself from the flu virus.

In most people, the flu leads to symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, cough, fever, headaches, muscle aches, and extreme tiredness. It can last for several days and most people will fully recover without treatment.

As with Covid and other illnesses, those who are at high risk include children under two years old, pregnant women, people over the age of fifty, people with certain chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, and people who are immunosuppressed.

How is the Flu Spread?

As with Covid, any contact with droplets in the air (also known as “airborne transmission”) from someone who has the virus can easily catch the flu. This is the most common way that people can get infected. 

If a person is coughing or sneezing into his/her hands and touches door handles, computer keyboards, phones, or other common surfaces and then you touch these objects, your hands would most likely be infected, and if you touch your mouth or nose without washing your hands first, you most likely will contact the disease. 

With that said, scientists are not sure how long the virus lasts on surface areas, but studies have shown they can remain infected for 24 – 48 hours, so it is always a good idea to periodically disinfect common items that are touched in the house and to disinfect your hands after touching common items outside.

What are the Symptoms?

Woman sneezing
Image by Mojca-Peter from Pixabay

It can begin with a feeling of being under the weather that lasts one to two days. They can be mild to severe, depending on the person. Children can also have diarrhea and vomiting with flu symptoms. Additionally, you may have a high fever, headaches, muscle aches, and experience fatigue.

People with the flu can transmit the virus to others from one day before symptoms begin until at least three days after symptoms begin. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor because of the uptick of viral and bacterial respiratory infections that are occurring these days, especially among children

How can the Flu be Prevented?

Man washing his hands with sanitizer
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Getting a vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Antibodies won’t do it because it is a virus. The best time to get vaccinated is in the fall before flu season sets in. You should get a flu shot every year, even if you don’t think you’ve been exposed.

Vaccination not only prevents the flu, but it also reduces the risk of passing it to others. This is especially important during flu season when you’re more likely to come into contact with someone who has it.

You should also take other steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu, including (and this applies overall for general health and safety):

      • Wash your hands frequently. This is one of the best ways to prevent its spread. 
      • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. 
      • Drink lots of fluids. 100% fruit and vegetable juice are great immune boosters.
      • Stay home when you are sick. The flu is highly contagious and can easily be spread to others.
      • Keep your hands away from your face. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
      • Avoid touching common surfaces when possible. This will help reduce the risk of spreading germs and bacteria.
      • Get plenty of rest. Resting when you are sick will help your body fight the infection faster.
Glass of orange juice with oranges and pills
Juice loaded with vitamin C is a great source for keeping your immune system healthy

What Treatments are Available?

The flu usually goes away by itself. Your physician will prescribe rest and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce your fever and ease your discomfort.

Are There Complications of the Flu?

Serious complications are rare but include bacterial infections, bronchitis, or pneumonia. You should speak with your doctor if you notice worsening symptoms, additional symptoms, or if your symptoms have not improved after a few days.

Depending on the severity of your infection and your risk of complications, you may be prescribed antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection. If you have an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, you may be at higher risk of complications.

How Long Does the Flu Last?

This depends on the person. The average time you will be ill is one to two weeks. However, you should continue to practice good hygiene and hand-washing habits even after you’ve recovered.

Are There Long-Term Effects?

Influenza can sometimes lead to more serious complications, including pneumonia or bronchitis. In rare cases, it could lead to death, but most of the time in these cases, the patient is usually not well to begin with, so if you have an underlying medical condition, the flu can increase your risk of long-term effects.

If you get infected, you’re likely to be out of commission for a few days. Getting yourself back to health as soon as possible is the best way to avoid the longer-term effects of the flu. If you get the flu shot and still get sick, you may have been exposed to another type of flu virus.