Flu Facts

(October 8, 2012) - The flu is a contagious viral infection that infects the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death. Signs and symptoms of the flu often include high fever, general aches and pains, weakness, chest discomfort, and cough.

Bronchitis, pneumonia, and death are potential complications of the flu virus, along with ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. This includes older people; young children; pregnant women; people with serious health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease; and people who live in nursing home or group care facilities. Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, spreading the infection from one person to another.

You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Young children and people with weakened immune systems might be able to infect others for an even longer time.

The best way to decrease your chances of getting the flu is by receiving a flu vaccine each year. Everyone six months of age and older should get a yearly vaccine. Flu season normally begins in October and lasts until May. It is recommended that children and adults get vaccinated before flu season starts.

Vaccination with the nasal-spray flu vaccine is an option for healthy people 2 to 49 years of age who are not pregnant. Even people who live with or care for those in a high-risk group, including healthcare workers, can get the nasal-spray flu vaccine as long as they are healthy themselves and are not pregnant. The one exception is healthcare workers who care for people with severely weakened immune systems who require a protected hospital environment; these caregivers should get the inactivated flu vaccine, the flu shot.

If you have questions about whether you should get a flu vaccine, consult your healthcare provider.

About the Authors

Dwayne Gard, M.D., D.C., holds a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia and a doctor of chiropractic degree from Life University.

Chryselle Nazare, M.D., earned her medical degree at the International University of Health Sciences in St. Kitts and Nevis of the West Indies.

Both Gard and Nazare are hospitalists at Memorial University Medical Center. They specialize in caring for people who are in the hospital, including people hospitalized with flu complications.