The term "flu" is a catch-all for upper respiratory infections and is sometimes used to describe gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Technically, the flu is an influenza infection, caused by the influenza virus A, B, or C. People who have the flu can be infected by one or more of the three viruses.
Flu can seem very much like the common cold, with a cough, congestion, runny nose, and headache. However, flu infections are also accompanied by fever, chills, muscle aches and fatigue, and the symptoms are often much more severe than those of a cold. Young children, older adults (especially those with a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease) and pregnant women are at greater risk of a flu infection.
Many cases of flu are self-limiting (they get better on their own), and care is primarily directed at supporting the body with rest and fluids. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve symptoms. If the patient is diagnosed in the early stages and has severe symptoms or is in a high-risk category, doctors may prescribe an antiviral medication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend an annual flu vaccination to help prevent the flu.
In most cases, people with the flu should simply stay home to keep from spreading the disease to others. However, severe symptoms like a high fever, excessive coughing, nausea and vomiting, bluish skin color or heavy sputum production may warrant an urgent care visit. Children who are too lethargic to wake up or extremely irritable should also be seen by a doctor. People in high-risk groups or those with chronic lung conditions may need care because they are less able to fight off the illness.
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