May 7, 2024

Navigating The Flu: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

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Written by
Blueberry Editorial Team
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Monica Davern
Monica Davern, MD is a board-certified pediatrician and mom to two boys.
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Flu season rolls around each year, bringing various strains of flu viruses that can affect our little ones. As parents, understanding the different types of flu viruses and how to navigate through flu season is crucial to keep our kids healthy and safe.

This comprehensive guide dives into everything parents need to know about the flu virus, from common symptoms to treating flu with antiviral drugs to preventing severe disease with flu vaccines. Have more questions about the flu or symptoms your child is experiencing? Connect with a board-certified pediatrician today through Blueberry Pediatrics.

Key Takeaways

  • The flu, caused by the influenza virus, can lead to severe illness and complications, especially for high-risk groups like young children, older adults, and individuals with chronic health conditions.
  • Prevention is key: Vaccination, frequent handwashing, proper coughing etiquette, healthy lifestyle practices, and limiting contact with sick individuals can help protect against the flu.
  • Knowing the symptoms, duration, contagious period, diagnostic methods, treatment options, and potential flu complications can aid in early recognition and management of the illness.

What is the flu?

The flu, short for influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The flu virus is a viral infection that primarily attacks the respiratory system, spreading through droplets released by infected individuals. This virus infects your body, including the nose, throat, and sometimes even your lungs. The flu can cause GI symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. It spreads easily through coughs, sneezes, or even talking to someone sick. 

While some people might just feel under the weather, the flu can be serious, especially for young children, older adults, and those with health problems. It stands as one of the most common infectious diseases, highlighting the expertise of doctors in treating viral and bacterial infectious diseases, including the flu.

What causes the flu?

The flu, also known as the influenza virus, is caused by specific virus types primarily targeting the nose, throat, and lungs. Human infections typically arise from three main types of the influenza virus - A, B, and C, each with different subtypes.  Subtypes A and B play a vital role in the seasonal flu patterns we observe, while subtype C causes milder disease that is not thought to contribute to annual flu outbreaks.

Common flu symptoms

Understanding the flu symptoms is crucial as many are similar to the common cold, such as fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, and sore throat. However, distinguishing symptoms of the flu include:

  • Headache
  • Chills or sweats
  • Body aches
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • High fever (101 F or above)

 Influenza generally causes higher fever than what is seen with the common cold. It is common for influenza to cause a fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit and last up to four days.

How long does the flu last?

The duration of the flu can vary depending on your age and overall health; children and older adults may experience flu symptoms for a longer duration.

Most people feel significantly better within 4 to 7 days. Different symptoms may resolve faster than others:

  • Typically, fever lasts up to four days. If your child still has a fever on day five of illness, we recommend making an appointment for an in-person evaluation.
  • Other symptoms tend to resolve by day seven, while fatigue and cough may linger for up to 21 days. 
  • Influenza also makes the body more prone to secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, so if symptoms have not improved or are worsening, it's important to seek care immediately. 

How long is the flu contagious?

The time you can be contagious with the flu can vary depending on your age and health condition.

Most healthy individuals can spread the flu for one day before symptoms develop and 5 to 7 days after becoming sick, with the highest risk window being the first three days of illness.

However, children and individuals with a weakened immune system may be contagious for longer and may continue to spread the virus for several weeks after symptoms appear.

How do you diagnose the flu? 

There are two main ways to diagnose the flu: evaluating symptoms and testing.

Doctors consider your symptoms

While the flu shares similarities with the common cold, flu symptoms tend to be more sudden and severe. They'll look for classic flu symptoms like high fevers, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat, headache, cough, and stomachache. 

The timing of your illness can also be a clue: flu outbreaks typically occur during the colder months. Doctors can also consider the trends in your community and direct flu exposure.

Testing can confirm the flu

While a doctor can often diagnose the flu based on your symptoms alone, tests can provide a definitive answer. Two common tests are available:

  • Rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs): These swab tests collect a sample from your nose or throat. Results come back quickly, within 10-15 minutes, but may not be as accurate as other tests.
  • Molecular assays: These tests, sometimes called PCR tests, are more accurate than RIDTs but take longer for results, typically a day or two. They also involve a nasal or throat swab.
  • The FDA recently approved a home test to detect influenza A, B, and COVID-19. The Lucira COVID-19 and Flu Home Test by Pfizer can be administered at home using a nasal swab, producing results in about 30 minutes. This test is available over the counter and does not require a prescription.  

It's important to note that testing is most helpful if done within the first few days of your illness. Early diagnosis allows your doctor to determine the best course of treatment, which can help you recover faster, potentially reduce the risk of complications, and prevent transmission to others. However, even without a test, your doctor can still provide supportive care to help you manage your flu symptoms.

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Is there an at-home test for flu?

Yes, there are at-home flu tests available. These are rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) that use a nasal swab to collect a sample from your nose. The swab is then inserted into a test cartridge, and results are typically available within 30  minutes. 

How do you treat the flu? 

When treating the flu, home remedies are your best bet. Your goal with home remedies is to manage your child’s symptoms until they feel better. 

Home remedies

Home remedies can help alleviate symptoms and support the body’s immune defenses while it fights off the virus. Here are some common recommendations:

  • Rest: Getting plenty of sleep allows your body to focus its energy on recovery.
  • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, broth, or juice, to prevent dehydration caused by fever and sweating. If you cannot eat solid foods, make sure that whatever you are drinking contains both sugar and salt to prevent electrolyte changes that can prolong symptoms of nausea and fatigue. 
  • Over-the-counter medications:some text
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help reduce fever and body aches.
    • Saline nasal spray can help clear congestion.
    • Lozenges or cough drops can soothe a sore throat.
  • Prescription medications: some text
    • Ondansetron (Zofran) may be prescribed by your doctor if there are symptoms of vomiting or nausea leading to dehydration. 

Antiviral medication

Antiviral medications are prescription medications that target the influenza virus itself. They may shorten the duration of flu symptoms and reduce the risk of virus transmission but generally must be started within the first 48 hours of illness.  

Even if your child is diagnosed with the flu in the first 48 hours, your pediatrician may not prescribe antivirals because the potential side effects (diarrhea and nausea) far outweigh the benefits (one day less with the flu). Antiviral drugs are generally reserved for those at higher risk of flu complications. Healthy adults and children typically recover from the flu without them. For those in a high-risk group for flu complications, such as young children, older adults, pregnant women, or people with chronic health conditions, it's important to see a doctor right away to discuss treatment options.

The best way to prevent severe illness from the flu is to get vaccinated every year.

Will antibiotics treat the flu?

Antibiotics will not treat the flu. Antibiotics are only for infections and illnesses caused by bacteria. The flu is caused by Influenza viruses.

Are there any potential serious complications or risks from the flu?

While most people recover from the flu without problems, there are some potential complications and risks to be aware of.

Secondary infections

The flu can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to secondary infections like bacterial pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Pneumonia is a serious complication, especially for young children, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions.

Worsening of chronic health conditions

The flu can worsen existing health problems like asthma and diabetes.

Groups of people who are at higher risk for flu complications include the following:

  • Young children (especially under age 5)
  • Children with a history of prematurity
  • Older adults (especially over age 65)
  • Pregnant women
  • People with chronic health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or weakened immune systems)

How can parents help prevent the flu?

Mother and daughter with pink band aid smiling after having an injection.

Parents play a huge role in the fight against the flu for their families. By following these tips, we can significantly reduce the risk of their children getting the flu and also help protect other vulnerable family members.

Yearly flu shot and nasal spray vaccine

An annual vaccination for everyone six months and older is the most effective way to prevent the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone six months or older as a critical disease prevention step. This includes children, parents, and grandparents living in the same household.

Options, like the flu shot and the nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine, or LAIV), cater to different needs and preferences. 

Vaccination is key in protecting against the variety of flu viruses expected during the seasonal flu period, significantly lowering the risk of serious illness and severe illness that can lead to hospitalization or even death.

If possible, vaccinate everyone in your household by the end of October (although flu season can vary). Early vaccination is best, but it's still beneficial to get vaccinated even later in the season.

Frequent handwashing

Teach children proper handwashing techniques with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This should be done especially after coughing, sneezing, restroom use, and eating.

Teach proper coughing and sneezing etiquette

Encourage children to cough or sneeze into their elbow or a tissue and to throw the tissue away immediately.

Avoid touching faces

Remind children to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible, as this is a common way germs spread.

Practice a healthy lifestyle

Promote a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and regular outdoor activity. These practices can strengthen the immune system and better equip it to fight infections. Secondhand tobacco exposure can increase the risk of severe disease in children, so there’s no better time to quit smoking than now to protect your kids. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22863259/).

Limit contact with sick people

Keep children home from daycare or school if they are sick. Likewise, avoid close contact with others who are sick.

Clean and disinfect surfaces

Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces frequently touched, such as doorknobs, countertops, and toys. This can help reduce the spread of germs.

Are other illnesses mistaken for flu?

The flu can be confused with other respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, the common cold, and RSV - especially at the beginning when symptoms overlap. 

The common cold is caused by viruses that are different from those of influenza. Its symptoms are generally more mild. Fever is less frequent and usually low-grade if present. 

COVID-19 symptoms can be similar to flu, including fever, cough, fatigue, and muscle aches. However, COVID-19 may also cause loss of taste or smell, and symptoms can take longer to develop (2-14 days) than flu (1-4 days).

Also common in young children are RSV and croup, respiratory illnesses that mimic flu symptoms, including cough, congestion, fever, and fatigue.

Distinguishing between these illnesses based on symptoms alone can be difficult. Rapid tests may help differentiate between flu, COVID-19, and sometimes RSV. 

Beating the flu virus with Blueberry Pediatrics

Have questions about exposure to the flu, the flu vaccine, or what to do if you think your child may have the flu? The pediatricians at Blueberry have answers! Blueberry Pediatrics, one of the largest pediatric practices in the US, provides 24/7 access to board-certified pediatricians via phone, text, or video.

Families get unlimited care for all the children in their household, without leaving home, for one low monthly or annual fee. The flu is just one of the many illnesses our pediatricians can treat. You can get care as soon as today when you sign up.

Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 13). Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm
  • CDC H1N1 Flu | People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications. (n.d.). Www.cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/highrisk.htm
  • NYC Health. (n.d.). influenza-high-risk-groups. Www.nyc.gov. https://www.nyc.gov/site/doh/providers/health-topics/influenza-high-risk-groups.page
  • 2023-2024 CDC Flu Vaccination Recommendations Adopted. (2023, June 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/spotlights/2022-2023/flu-vaccination-recommendations-adopted.htm

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Navigating The Flu: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Blueberry Editorial Team
Thin Header White Wave
Table of Contents

    Flu season rolls around each year, bringing various strains of flu viruses that can affect our little ones. As parents, understanding the different types of flu viruses and how to navigate through flu season is crucial to keep our kids healthy and safe.

    This comprehensive guide dives into everything parents need to know about the flu virus, from common symptoms to treating flu with antiviral drugs to preventing severe disease with flu vaccines. Have more questions about the flu or symptoms your child is experiencing? Connect with a board-certified pediatrician today through Blueberry Pediatrics.

    Key Takeaways

    • The flu, caused by the influenza virus, can lead to severe illness and complications, especially for high-risk groups like young children, older adults, and individuals with chronic health conditions.
    • Prevention is key: Vaccination, frequent handwashing, proper coughing etiquette, healthy lifestyle practices, and limiting contact with sick individuals can help protect against the flu.
    • Knowing the symptoms, duration, contagious period, diagnostic methods, treatment options, and potential flu complications can aid in early recognition and management of the illness.

    What is the flu?

    The flu, short for influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The flu virus is a viral infection that primarily attacks the respiratory system, spreading through droplets released by infected individuals. This virus infects your body, including the nose, throat, and sometimes even your lungs. The flu can cause GI symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. It spreads easily through coughs, sneezes, or even talking to someone sick. 

    While some people might just feel under the weather, the flu can be serious, especially for young children, older adults, and those with health problems. It stands as one of the most common infectious diseases, highlighting the expertise of doctors in treating viral and bacterial infectious diseases, including the flu.

    What causes the flu?

    The flu, also known as the influenza virus, is caused by specific virus types primarily targeting the nose, throat, and lungs. Human infections typically arise from three main types of the influenza virus - A, B, and C, each with different subtypes.  Subtypes A and B play a vital role in the seasonal flu patterns we observe, while subtype C causes milder disease that is not thought to contribute to annual flu outbreaks.

    Common flu symptoms

    Understanding the flu symptoms is crucial as many are similar to the common cold, such as fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, and sore throat. However, distinguishing symptoms of the flu include:

    • Headache
    • Chills or sweats
    • Body aches
    • Tiredness or fatigue
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • High fever (101 F or above)

     Influenza generally causes higher fever than what is seen with the common cold. It is common for influenza to cause a fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit and last up to four days.

    How long does the flu last?

    The duration of the flu can vary depending on your age and overall health; children and older adults may experience flu symptoms for a longer duration.

    Most people feel significantly better within 4 to 7 days. Different symptoms may resolve faster than others:

    • Typically, fever lasts up to four days. If your child still has a fever on day five of illness, we recommend making an appointment for an in-person evaluation.
    • Other symptoms tend to resolve by day seven, while fatigue and cough may linger for up to 21 days. 
    • Influenza also makes the body more prone to secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, so if symptoms have not improved or are worsening, it's important to seek care immediately. 

    How long is the flu contagious?

    The time you can be contagious with the flu can vary depending on your age and health condition.

    Most healthy individuals can spread the flu for one day before symptoms develop and 5 to 7 days after becoming sick, with the highest risk window being the first three days of illness.

    However, children and individuals with a weakened immune system may be contagious for longer and may continue to spread the virus for several weeks after symptoms appear.

    How do you diagnose the flu? 

    There are two main ways to diagnose the flu: evaluating symptoms and testing.

    Doctors consider your symptoms

    While the flu shares similarities with the common cold, flu symptoms tend to be more sudden and severe. They'll look for classic flu symptoms like high fevers, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat, headache, cough, and stomachache. 

    The timing of your illness can also be a clue: flu outbreaks typically occur during the colder months. Doctors can also consider the trends in your community and direct flu exposure.

    Testing can confirm the flu

    While a doctor can often diagnose the flu based on your symptoms alone, tests can provide a definitive answer. Two common tests are available:

    • Rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs): These swab tests collect a sample from your nose or throat. Results come back quickly, within 10-15 minutes, but may not be as accurate as other tests.
    • Molecular assays: These tests, sometimes called PCR tests, are more accurate than RIDTs but take longer for results, typically a day or two. They also involve a nasal or throat swab.
    • The FDA recently approved a home test to detect influenza A, B, and COVID-19. The Lucira COVID-19 and Flu Home Test by Pfizer can be administered at home using a nasal swab, producing results in about 30 minutes. This test is available over the counter and does not require a prescription.  

    It's important to note that testing is most helpful if done within the first few days of your illness. Early diagnosis allows your doctor to determine the best course of treatment, which can help you recover faster, potentially reduce the risk of complications, and prevent transmission to others. However, even without a test, your doctor can still provide supportive care to help you manage your flu symptoms.

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      👩🏽⚕️ Chat With A Pediatrician About Your Child's Symptoms
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     <link rel="prefetch" href="https://app.blueberrypediatrics.com/join_blueberry_18a_cart?promo=blog100">

    Is there an at-home test for flu?

    Yes, there are at-home flu tests available. These are rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) that use a nasal swab to collect a sample from your nose. The swab is then inserted into a test cartridge, and results are typically available within 30  minutes. 

    How do you treat the flu? 

    When treating the flu, home remedies are your best bet. Your goal with home remedies is to manage your child’s symptoms until they feel better. 

    Home remedies

    Home remedies can help alleviate symptoms and support the body’s immune defenses while it fights off the virus. Here are some common recommendations:

    • Rest: Getting plenty of sleep allows your body to focus its energy on recovery.
    • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, broth, or juice, to prevent dehydration caused by fever and sweating. If you cannot eat solid foods, make sure that whatever you are drinking contains both sugar and salt to prevent electrolyte changes that can prolong symptoms of nausea and fatigue. 
    • Over-the-counter medications:some text
      • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help reduce fever and body aches.
      • Saline nasal spray can help clear congestion.
      • Lozenges or cough drops can soothe a sore throat.
    • Prescription medications: some text
      • Ondansetron (Zofran) may be prescribed by your doctor if there are symptoms of vomiting or nausea leading to dehydration. 

    Antiviral medication

    Antiviral medications are prescription medications that target the influenza virus itself. They may shorten the duration of flu symptoms and reduce the risk of virus transmission but generally must be started within the first 48 hours of illness.  

    Even if your child is diagnosed with the flu in the first 48 hours, your pediatrician may not prescribe antivirals because the potential side effects (diarrhea and nausea) far outweigh the benefits (one day less with the flu). Antiviral drugs are generally reserved for those at higher risk of flu complications. Healthy adults and children typically recover from the flu without them. For those in a high-risk group for flu complications, such as young children, older adults, pregnant women, or people with chronic health conditions, it's important to see a doctor right away to discuss treatment options.

    The best way to prevent severe illness from the flu is to get vaccinated every year.

    Will antibiotics treat the flu?

    Antibiotics will not treat the flu. Antibiotics are only for infections and illnesses caused by bacteria. The flu is caused by Influenza viruses.

    Are there any potential serious complications or risks from the flu?

    While most people recover from the flu without problems, there are some potential complications and risks to be aware of.

    Secondary infections

    The flu can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to secondary infections like bacterial pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Pneumonia is a serious complication, especially for young children, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions.

    Worsening of chronic health conditions

    The flu can worsen existing health problems like asthma and diabetes.

    Groups of people who are at higher risk for flu complications include the following:

    • Young children (especially under age 5)
    • Children with a history of prematurity
    • Older adults (especially over age 65)
    • Pregnant women
    • People with chronic health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or weakened immune systems)

    How can parents help prevent the flu?

    Mother and daughter with pink band aid smiling after having an injection.

    Parents play a huge role in the fight against the flu for their families. By following these tips, we can significantly reduce the risk of their children getting the flu and also help protect other vulnerable family members.

    Yearly flu shot and nasal spray vaccine

    An annual vaccination for everyone six months and older is the most effective way to prevent the flu.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone six months or older as a critical disease prevention step. This includes children, parents, and grandparents living in the same household.

    Options, like the flu shot and the nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine, or LAIV), cater to different needs and preferences. 

    Vaccination is key in protecting against the variety of flu viruses expected during the seasonal flu period, significantly lowering the risk of serious illness and severe illness that can lead to hospitalization or even death.

    If possible, vaccinate everyone in your household by the end of October (although flu season can vary). Early vaccination is best, but it's still beneficial to get vaccinated even later in the season.

    Frequent handwashing

    Teach children proper handwashing techniques with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This should be done especially after coughing, sneezing, restroom use, and eating.

    Teach proper coughing and sneezing etiquette

    Encourage children to cough or sneeze into their elbow or a tissue and to throw the tissue away immediately.

    Avoid touching faces

    Remind children to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible, as this is a common way germs spread.

    Practice a healthy lifestyle

    Promote a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and regular outdoor activity. These practices can strengthen the immune system and better equip it to fight infections. Secondhand tobacco exposure can increase the risk of severe disease in children, so there’s no better time to quit smoking than now to protect your kids. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22863259/).

    Limit contact with sick people

    Keep children home from daycare or school if they are sick. Likewise, avoid close contact with others who are sick.

    Clean and disinfect surfaces

    Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces frequently touched, such as doorknobs, countertops, and toys. This can help reduce the spread of germs.

    Are other illnesses mistaken for flu?

    The flu can be confused with other respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, the common cold, and RSV - especially at the beginning when symptoms overlap. 

    The common cold is caused by viruses that are different from those of influenza. Its symptoms are generally more mild. Fever is less frequent and usually low-grade if present. 

    COVID-19 symptoms can be similar to flu, including fever, cough, fatigue, and muscle aches. However, COVID-19 may also cause loss of taste or smell, and symptoms can take longer to develop (2-14 days) than flu (1-4 days).

    Also common in young children are RSV and croup, respiratory illnesses that mimic flu symptoms, including cough, congestion, fever, and fatigue.

    Distinguishing between these illnesses based on symptoms alone can be difficult. Rapid tests may help differentiate between flu, COVID-19, and sometimes RSV. 

    Beating the flu virus with Blueberry Pediatrics

    Have questions about exposure to the flu, the flu vaccine, or what to do if you think your child may have the flu? The pediatricians at Blueberry have answers! Blueberry Pediatrics, one of the largest pediatric practices in the US, provides 24/7 access to board-certified pediatricians via phone, text, or video.

    Families get unlimited care for all the children in their household, without leaving home, for one low monthly or annual fee. The flu is just one of the many illnesses our pediatricians can treat. You can get care as soon as today when you sign up.

    Sources

    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 13). Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm
    • CDC H1N1 Flu | People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications. (n.d.). Www.cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/highrisk.htm
    • NYC Health. (n.d.). influenza-high-risk-groups. Www.nyc.gov. https://www.nyc.gov/site/doh/providers/health-topics/influenza-high-risk-groups.page
    • 2023-2024 CDC Flu Vaccination Recommendations Adopted. (2023, June 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/spotlights/2022-2023/flu-vaccination-recommendations-adopted.htm