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The Flu & You

Woman in warm clothes blowing nose into tissue

What is the flu?

Millions of people each year come down with a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus, commonly known as the flu. For healthy people with strong immune systems, getting the flu means feeling ill for 1-2 weeks. But for others, including babies, children, pregnant people, people with weak immune systems, and the elderly, the flu can be much more severe. For these populations, the flu can even lead to dangerous complications, like pneumonia.

The flu season peaks in January and can last through the spring. The CDC recommends that all adults over the age of 2 get a flu shot by October each year.

The best way to protect yourself and your community from the flu is to get a flu vaccine every year. If you do get sick, stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

To recover from the flu. stay home, rest, and drink fluids. Antibiotics are not effective against the flu.

What symptoms does the flu cause?

Flu symptoms range in severity from mild to severe, and can include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Headaches
  • Feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea may also occur, especially among children

How is the flu spread?

The flu is spread when a person who is sick coughs, sneezes, or talks around others. You do not need to have symptoms in order to spread the flu. Adults may be contagious starting a day before symptoms appear up until five to seven days after they get sick.

How can I avoid getting the flu?

There are a number of steps you can take to avoid getting sick with the flu:

  • Get your flu shot. The flu vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself and others from the flu.
  • Wash your hands with soap and hot water regularly.
  • Eat healthy food, get at least 7 hours of sleep, and get regular exercise to keep your immune system strong.

What should I do if I have the flu?

First and foremost, the most important thing to do when you are sick is to stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and any public gatherings. For most people, the flu lasts 1-2 weeks. Contact your teachers and/or employer and let them know that you may have the flu, and that you need to stay home. You can ask your health care provider to write a note attesting to your illness.

Staying home is doubly important because it is the best way to avoid spreading the flu to more vulnerable members of your community, such as elderly people and babies. If you yourself have a compromised immune system, are over the age of 65, or are pregnant, you may be at high risk for complications from the flu. Your doctor may recommend antiviral drugs to help treat the flu. See a full list of people at high risk here.

If you are a UW student, check in with our Consulting Nurse service by phone to review your symptoms and make sure you don’t need to see a provider. Make sure to have a thermometer ready, as the nurse will want to know your temperature.

If you must leave the house while you have a fever (like to see a provider), wear a face mask, or cover your mouth and nose with tissue when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often.

Managing fever and drinking fluids are also important considerations when you’re sick with the flu. Keep your fever down by taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen (both available over the counter at pharmacies and grocery stores). Drink hot liquids like tea, and plenty of water. If you don’t feel like eating, drink soup or broth.

Is there any medical treatment for the flu?

Antiviral drugs are used to treat the flu for people who are at high risk of complications. Antibiotics (used to treat infections caused by bacteria) are not effective in treating the flu, which is caused by a virus.

Additional resources