The flu is a contagious infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by the influenza virus.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The flu usually begins abruptly, with a fever between 102 to 106°F (an adult typically has a lower fever than a child). Other common symptoms include a flushed face, body aches, and lack of energy. Some people have dizziness or vomiting. The fever usually lasts for a day or two, but can last 5 days.

Somewhere between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the "whole body" symptoms begin to subside, and respiratory symptoms begin to increase. The flu virus can settle anywhere in the respiratory tract, producing symptoms of a cold, croup, sore throat, bronchiolitis, ear infection, or pneumonia.

The most prominent of the respiratory symptoms is usually a dry, hacking cough. Most people also develop a sore throat and headache. Nasal discharge (runny nose) and sneezing are common. These symptoms (except the cough) usually disappear within 4-7 days. Sometimes, the fever returns. Cough and tiredness usually last for weeks after the rest of the illness is over.

The flu usually arrives in the winter months. The most common way to catch the flu is by breathing in droplets from coughs or sneezes. Less often, it is spread when you touch a surface such as a faucet handle or phone that has the virus on it, and then touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes.

Symptoms appear 1-7 days later (usually within 2-3 days). Because the flu is airborne and very contagious, with a short incubation period, it often strikes a community all at once. This creates a cluster of school and work absences. Within 2 or 3 weeks of its arrival in a school, much of the classroom has had it.

Tens of millions of people in the United States get the flu each year. Most recover within a week or two, but about thousands of people each year get sick enough to be hospitalized, and about 36,000 people die each year from the flu.

Anyone at any age can have serious complications from the flu, but those at highest risk include:

  • People over 50 years of age
  • Children 6-23 months
  • Women more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season
  • Anyone living in a long-term care facility
  • Anyone with chronic heart, lung, or kidney conditions, diabetes, or weakened immune system

Sometimes people confuse cold and flu, which share some of the same symptoms and typically occur at the same time of the year. However, the two diseases are very different. Most people get a cold several times each year, and the flu only once every several years.

People often use the term "stomach flu" to describe a viral illness where vomiting or diarrhea are the main symptoms. This is something of a myth, as the stomach symptoms are not caused by the flu virus. Flu infections are primarily respiratory infections.


  • Fever - may be high
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy, congested nose
  • Muscle aches and stiffness

Other symptoms may include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Croupy cough
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Malaise
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Worsening of underlying illness, such as asthma or heart failure

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