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What If I Get The Flu?


Are you sure you have the flu?

Influenza is often confused with other illnesses. It is important to correctly identify the condition before treatment is begun. The information provided here will help you determine if what you have is really influenza ("flu"). However, only a physician or other qualified health professional can diagnose illnesses.

Influenza is different from a cold. The table below will help you distinguish between the flu and a cold.

Symptom Influenza Cold
Onset of symptoms Sudden Gradual
Fever High, often with chills None or mild
Headache Severe None or mild
Muscle and body aches Severe None or mild
Fatigue, weakness Severe None or mild
Nasal congestion, sneezing None Present
Cough Severe dry cough None or mild
Sore throat Possible Present
Duration 4-7 days; fatigue and weakness can last 2-3 weeks 2-4 days; congestion can last 5-7 days
Possible complications Bronchitis, pneumonia, sometimes death Sinus infection; earache

Note that the flu does not cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. What people sometimes call the "stomach flu" is not really flu at all. It is most likely due to food poisoning, or a bacteria or non-influenza virus inside the gastrointestinal tract.

Also note that the severity of an individual case of influenza can range from very mild to very severe, including complications.

What can I do for the flu?

If you develop the flu:

  • stay in bed
  • minimize contact with others (to keep from spreading the flu)
  • get as much rest as possible

You can be contagious for 3 – 7 days after you start feeling sick, so take time off from work or other social activities while recovering. Drink plenty of clear liquids and use over-the-counter pain medicines (e.g. acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen) for fever and body aches. However, do NOT give aspirin to children or teenagers with a fever, because aspirin can cause a rare, but sometimes fatal, illness called Reye Syndrome during recovery from viral infections.

When should I contact the doctor?

As soon as you think you have the flu, contact your doctor. Older adults, and persons with chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable to complications from influenza. There are four prescription medications available that can decrease the severity and duration of an influenza illness, but only if started within 24 – 48 hours of onset of the illness. Two of the medications, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), are older medicines that are effective only against influenza A virus. The two newer medicines, zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) are effective against both influenza A and influenza B viruses, and tend to have fewer side effects than the older medicines.

When you contact your doctor, he will decide whether one of these medicines would be appropriate in your case, and choose the medicine that would be best for you.

Also, seek medical attention promptly in the following situations:

  • your fever or cough worsens
  • you are coughing up blood or thick, foul-smelling mucus
  • you have chest pain or shortness of breath
  • you develop an earache.


The best strategy for dealing with influenza is to prevent it in the first place. The influenza immunization is the best prevention for the flu. The flu shot should be obtained each year in mid-October, or when your physician advises. Influenza immunizations are recommended for all adults age 50 and over, as well as persons with chronic diseases.

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