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Illness & disability

Flu (Influenza)

Millions of people get the flu each year — and the aches, chills, and serious risks that can come with it. Learn more about this nasty bug.

What is flu? top

girl who is sick with the fluFlu is an illness caused by several different viruses. Here are some key points about flu:

  • Flu can cause fever, tiredness, headaches, muscle aches, a cough, a sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. The flu can seem like a cold, but flu symptoms usually are worse.
  • Flu can be pretty mild, but it can be very serious for older people, newborn babies, pregnant women, and people with certain illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes.
  • In the United States, seasonal flu usually strikes starting in the fall and going through early spring.
  • You catch the flu from other people. You can’t catch it from eating certain types of food.
  • The viruses that cause flu change over time.
  • Very rarely, a flu virus spreads around the world. This is called a pandemic. In 2009, there was an H1N1 flu pandemic. The H1N1 pandemic is over now. Even so, some groups, like children, may still be at risk from this kind of flu, at least for a while.

Can a flu vaccine help? top

Getting a flu shot or nasal spray is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. The 2010-2011 seasonal flu vaccine helps protect against three flu viruses, including the H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last year. Here are some key points about the 2010-2011 vaccine:

  • Everyone 6 months of age and older should get the flu vaccine as soon as it is available.
  • Children younger than 10 years old who have never had a seasonal vaccine before need two doses of the vaccine. Children younger than 10 who have had the vaccine before need just one dose. Children older than 10 also need just one dose.
  • The vaccine comes in either a shot or a nasal spray. The spray is only for healthy people between 2 and 49 years old who are not pregnant. Ask your doctor if the spray is an option for you.
  • The vaccine is considered very safe.

What else can I do to stay safe from flu? top

Take these steps to protect yourself — and everyone around you — from flu:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. You can also use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Stay home at least 24 hours after your fever goes away. (It counts only if your fever stays down by itself, without help from Tylenol or other fever-reducing medicine.)

What if I get the flu? top

If you get the flu, ask your doctor about medicines called antivirals. You may be able to take these medicines to help you feel better.

Content last updated February 16, 2011

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.