When people talk about the flu, they sometimes use it to mean an intestinal virus. The real flu — influenza — is a respiratory infection and can show symptoms similar to a cold. But intestinal symptoms are rarely a sign of the flu.
Like a cold, influenza may cause upper respiratory congestion, but the flu packs a much meaner wallop. Complications of the flu kill 20,000 Americans each year, and thousands of others wind up in the hospital. Flu deaths occur mainly among the elderly and the chronically ill. While it generally is not life-threatening in younger, healthier people, the flu can make you feel really sick for a week or so, and it might put you out of commission for two or three weeks.
Symptoms of Influenza
The flu may come on quickly, starting with headache, chills, achiness and a fever of about 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. There may be a dry hacking cough and a sore or hoarse throat. Nasal congestion, if it occurs, usually comes on later.
Except for the headache and fever symptoms, this may sound like a bad cold. But a cold rarely has the overwhelming sense of fatigue that may accompany the flu. You feel absolutely wiped out, which is why you may curl up on the couch for a week or more after the main flu symptoms have passed.
Contagiousness and Treatment
The flu is highly contagious, and the virus tends to spread like wildfire through communities. But not everyone who comes in contact with influenza virus gets the flu. If you have a healthy lifestyle, you may be lucky enough to resist the bug. Being tired, under stress and run down probably make you more susceptible.
In theory, you should not get influenza more than once, because your body learns to resist it. Unfortunately, several different strains of the virus circulate every year, and having had one strain does not provide you with immunity against another.
Once you catch the flu, you will likely be down for the count. Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics will not do a thing for it. There are some anti-viral medications available, but they are not widely used for otherwise healthy people. The best way to treat it is to rest, drink lots of fluids, and take drugstore remedies to relieve the symptoms.
The best known method of prevention is an influenza vaccine. The vaccine is intended for the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system or chronic illness, like those with diabetes, TB disease and HIV. Flu season typically runs from Fall to Spring, but flu shots are ideally given between late September and mid-November.