Influenza (or the flu) is a viral infection that targets the respiratory system. While it is commonly referred to as the flu, it is different than other viruses that attack the digestive tract (known as the “stomach flu”).

The 2018/19 flu season was one of the longest in recent history, resulting in nearly 43 million cases of the flu, with over 645,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths. Health officials are predicting another bad flu season for 2019/20, and any signs or symptoms of the flu should be taken seriously.  While it can be dangerous for anyone, it comes with extra complications for infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system.

Diagnosis

People experiencing one or more symptoms like fever, muscle aches, headache, chills, sweats, weakness, fatigue, sore throat, or a cough should seek medical attention right away to be tested for influenza (flu).

A physical exam will help determine if symptoms indicate the flu. If so, the doctor or physician’s assistant will order a test that is specifically designed to detect various influenza viruses. Results are available within minutes, usually before the patient leaves the building. When the flu is widespread, at the height of flu season, a test may not be required, and the doctor may treat symptoms based on the assumption that the patient has the flu.

Treatment

Because flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics and other medicines used to treat bacterial infections will not help. The best course of treatment for the flu is plenty of bed rest and lots of fluids until symptoms begin to disappear.

Patients at risk of complications from the flu may be prescribed an antiviral medication like Tamiflu or Relenza to help shorten the duration of the illness (usually by about a day). Antiviral medications can cause side effects like nausea and vomiting and aren’t typically prescribed to low-risk patients.

The best way to avoid the flu is by getting a flu shot early in the flu season to avoid the increasing spread of flu germs. Since influenza viruses are highly contagious, proper hand-washing and avoiding crowded areas during the height of flu season will also help slow the spread of the virus.