Sofie Wise

Alexa Englehart

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About Author — Alexa currently lives in sunny San Diego, California. When not writing, she enjoys running, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, and reading.

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What to Do When You Have the Flu

The flu, more scientifically known as influenza, is a viral illness that can infect the respiratory tract of some mammals, birds, and humans. It remains one of the most common illnesses in the country. Estimates show that on average, 5 to 20 percent of the total American population will get the flu each year, costing over $10 billion. About 200,000 Americans will be hospitalized due to complications caused by the illness.

While in highly rare cases, the flu can be severe, for the vast majority of Americans, the flu is completely harmless, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant or inconvenient. Let’s take a closer look at the flu, how to spot it, how long the flu lasts, and what you should do when you have the flu.

What Causes the Flu?

The flu is caused by viruses. Viruses with animal origins can mutate to infect the human immune system. The human flu in particular is caused by influenza viruses A, B, and C. Influenza A and B are responsible for causing the seasonal flu, while influenza C can cause the flu outside of the season. Influenza virus C is not known for causing epidemics like viruses A and B.

Generally, the two viruses you will likely have to deal with are A and B. However, these two types of viruses can be broken down further into subtypes, strains, and lineages.

Let’s Get Technical – Breaking Down the Biology of Influenza

Influenza A viruses have two proteins on their surface, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Hemagglutinin has 18 different subtypes, while neuraminidase has 11 different subtypes. This is denoted by H1 through H18 and N1 through N11.

Along with these protein-based designations, influenza A viruses can be broken down based on their strain. The two main subtypes found in humans today are H1N1 and H3N2. However, in spring of 2009, scientists discovered a new form of H1N1 that was causing illnesses in people and was different from the same influenza A (H1N1) initially circulating. The new form of H1N1 actually caused the first flu pandemic in over 40 years. The new strain, now referred to as 2009 H1N1, has since replaced the initial subtype that was circulating.

Influenza B virus does not have the same protein variations, but it does have different strains and lineages. For example, the two main influenza B viruses come from either B/Yamagata or B/Victoria lineages.

The naming convention of influenza virus subtypes and strains was decided by the World Health Organization in 1979. The full name of a virus consists of:

  • The type of antigen (A, B, C)
  • The host of origin if it did not originate from humans
  • Geographical origin
  • Strain number
  • The year the virus was isolated

Influenza A viruses also include the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase designations in parentheses. For example, a virus originating from a duck may be named A/duck/Alberta/35/76 (H1N1).

Is the Flu Contagious?

The flu is highly contagious and can easily spread from person to person, often leading to larger seasonal epidemics. Flu season unofficially starts in October and continues to early May, but viral mutations and various factors make for variations each year.

What makes the flu particularly dangerous is that you can spread the flu to others before you even know you have it yourself. Most healthy adults may be contagious a day before they even develop symptoms. You are also contagious for five to seven days after becoming sick. Children and those with compromised immune systems can be contagious for even longer than seven days.

People with the flu can potentially spread the virus to others within a surprising six-foot radius. The main mode of transmission is through microscopic water droplets created when you cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can carry the virus and land on someone’s mouth or nose or may otherwise be inhaled into the lungs. Alternately, you can get the flu by touching your eyes or face after making contact with a surface or object (doorknobs, keyboards, phones) with the flu virus on it.

What are Some Common Flu Symptoms?

The flu and cold often have overlapping symptoms. Generally, you can expect influenza symptoms to be much more intense and last much longer than cold symptoms. The onset of symptoms tends to also be much more sudden with the flu. Symptoms generally start one to four days after the virus initially enters the body.

Some common symptoms that you should keep an eye out for include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Headaches
  • Chills and cold sweats
  • Fatigue and general weakness
  • Stuffy nose, sneezing, congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing and chest discomfort

Some people with the flu may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. However, these symptoms tend to be more common in children. The earliest sign of flu is sudden extreme fatigue and weakness.

That said, symptoms differ from person to person. Some may not have a fever or aches. Some people may be infected with the flu virus but exhibit no symptoms at all. While they may not show obvious signs, these people are still carriers and can still spread the virus to others.

What to Do When You Have the Flu

It’s important to remember that the flu is a viral infection. That means that antibiotics will have no effect on your flu. In fact, using antibiotics when they are unnecessary may possibly cause greater problems to your health. They can damage the beneficial bacteria in your system, potentially causing gastrointestinal issues. Improperly using antibiotics can also lead to the creation of “superbugs,” which are bacteria that have developed resistance to common antibiotics, forcing people to take more intense antibiotics.

Treatments for the flu do exist in the form of antiviral medications. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications, including zanamivir, oseltamivir, and peramivir, to help reduce the severity and length of symptoms. However, these medications will not necessarily cure your flu. Most cases of the flu will go away on their own in one to two weeks.

Some tips for what you should do when you get the flu:

  • Stay at home and get plenty of rest. It can’t be stressed enough that you are incredibly contagious when you have the flu. Do not go to school or to work until you get better. Battling a virus also puts a lot of strain on your immune system. Going to work or otherwise venturing outside just puts more stress on your body and will keep you from getting better. It’s a good idea to also notify a friend or family member to check in on you to make sure that you are getting all the help and food you need.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, juice, sports drinks, and broth-based soups to prevent dehydration, which can only cause more problems and make your immune system work harder. Drinking fluids also helps to thin out the mucus building up in your throat and sinuses, making it easier to break down while preventing it from collecting in your lungs and potentially leading to an infection.
  • Treat your fever. While there isn’t a direct cure for the flu, there are still plenty of over-the-counter medications that can help to reduce your fever, headache, and joint pains. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, and other over-the-counter painkillers can keep any aches at bay and reduce your fever. Avoid giving aspirin to kids as it has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a disease known to cause damage to the liver and brain.
  • Treat your cough. Take over-the-counter medication, cough drops, or cough syrup to suppress your coughing, remove mucus, and soothe your throat.
  • Take warm showers. A warm shower can help to soothe aching muscles and joints while helping to loosen mucus and clear your sinuses.
  • Use a humidifier. If the air in your house feels dry, run a humidifier to ease coughs and soothe congestion. Just make sure that you use a cold mist, as a warm mist may just promote the growth and spread of bacteria. Make sure you also clean the humidifier regularly to prevent the development of mold.
  • Use saline. You can easily get saline nose drops and sprays over the counter. They are generally safe and easy to use and can help to clean mucus out of your nose and throat. Just avoid using them too frequently as you may irritate your sinuses, leading to discomfort and potential infections.

Make sure you also avoid sharing any linens, utensils, or dishes with others until they have been thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. Once your health has improved, make sure to wipe down and disinfect any frequently touched surfaces to prevent the chance for reinfection.

How to Prevent the Flu

The best way to prevent the flu every year is to get your flu shot. The flu vaccination is generally available starting in September, though it may be earlier or later depending on when the vaccination is made available. A flu vaccine usually contains influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N2), and up to two influenza B viruses. Getting a flu vaccine protects you from these and related viruses.

The specific viruses included in the vaccine are based on international surveillance and calculations that determine the different subtypes and strains expected to circulate during any given year. Once you get a flu vaccination, you should be fully protected within two weeks.

The flu vaccine is not suitable for people who are allergic to chicken eggs or have had a severe reaction to past flu vaccines, and they should not be used on children younger than six months old.

Along with a flu vaccine, do your best to stay away from people who have the flu. During the flu season, make sure you wash your hands with soap and water frequently, especially before meals. You should also generally avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, which is a surefire way to introduce viruses, bacteria, and other foreign microbes into your system.

PlushCare’s team of healthcare professionals can provide diagnosis, treatment, and prescriptions all with one phone call. That means taking care of your health from the comfort of your own home. If you need help with your flu, contact us to book an appointment today.