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Flu 101

January 5, 2021 | By Lauren Lethbridge
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Even though the main health concern in the world right now is COVID, the flu is still out there and can be a terrible virus to catch. We're here to give you the low down on the flu so you can avoid getting it and if you do, you can have a quick and painless recovery. 

Let's Start at the Basics: What is the Flu?

The flu comes from an influenza virus and is a respiratory infection. The flu is contagious and typically affects the throat, nose, and occasionally lungs. The flu is an airborne virus, meaning it is contracted through particles in the air that come from talking, coughing, or sneezing. Rarely, a person can contract the flu by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their nose, mouth, or eyes.

COVID-19 vs. the Flu

According to a World Health Organization article, here are some similarities and differences between the two. 

Similarities

  • Symptoms
  • How it spreads (through contact as well as airborne particles, could be droplets from a cough or sneeze)
  • Prevention (washing hands, covering mouth, etc.)
  • Both are contagious
  • Respiratory illness

Differences

  • Mortality rate (there is a higher mortality rate for COVID-19 than for the flu)
  • Speed of transmission (the time between successive cases of the flu is 3 days whereas COVID-19 is 5-6 days, meaning that the flu spreads faster)
  • Appearance of symptoms (symptoms of the flu appear sooner after infection than COVID-19)
  • Secondary infections (one person who contracts COVID-19 typically spreads the illness to 2-2.5 people while those with the flu often spread to less)
  • Who is more affected (children are more affected and larger spreaders of the flu, whereas adults and the elderly are more affected by COVID-19 and more likely to spread infection)
  • Amount of severe cases (COVID-19 has a higher fraction of severe and extreme symptom cases than the flu)
  • Availability of vaccine (the flu vaccine is proven effective and widely available to the public whereas the COVID-19 vaccines are less proven and not available to as many people)

Who is At Risk?

Anyone can get the flu, but children are most at risk to contract the flu, with adults over 65 least likely, though adults over 65 have the highest risk of developing serious complications from contracting the flu. These complications include, but are not limited to pneumonia, asthma, and congestive heart failure. 

What Are the Symptoms? 

A woman blows her nose with a tissue

The flu has similar symptoms to a cold, but according to the CDC, the symptoms of the flu are experienced suddenly, unlike the common cold. These symptoms can be mild or severe and a person can experience one to multiple of the below symptoms when suffering from the flu: 

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny/stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches

Symptoms typically being 2 days after infection but can begin 1-4 days for some. 

How Do You Treat the Flu?

Luckily, the flu can be treated. The CDC says most people who contract the flu experience mild symptoms and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs (these drugs are prescription drugs and cannot be sold over the counter). To know if you qualify for antiviral drugs, you should contact your healthcare provider. They will give more guidance on whether you need the drugs and what type of antiviral medication you need. There are still a number of over-the-counter drugs that can help relieve flu symptoms. Here is a comprehensive list of the 8 best OTC flu medications

Since the flu is extremely contagious, when you contract it, you should do these things below to ensure you don't infect those around you.

  1. Limit contact with others while you are contagious. According to the CDC, people are most contagious 3-4 days after the onset of the flu. A person can be infectious 1 day before symptoms and up to 5-7 days after. 
  2. Wash your hands. 
  3. When you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth and nose. 
  4. Clean and disinfect surfaces you touch. (We have a great article that details the best disinfectants for viruses like the flu as well as the best way to clean devices like your phone and keep them free of bacteria.) 
  5. Stay at home. If you experience a fever, wait until 24 hours after your fever subsides before venturing out. 
Natural Treatment Options

Here are some natural options for the treating the flu that can help alleviate symptoms and speed up recovery, though they are not proven. If symptoms are severe, please contact your healthcare professional. 

  • Increase fluid intake. You should always drink lots of water. But you can also increase fluids with things like teas, soups, and broth. Doing this will help alleviate stuffy and runny noses and dryness. 
  • Sleep. It's proven that sleep helps boost your immune system and help it fight off the flu and other viruses and illnesses. 
  • Take zinc. Great for your immune system, zinc often lessens symptoms. You can get zinc through a pill or multivitamin or through certain foods (red meat, shellfish, nuts, beans, dairy, eggs, etc.)
  • Use a warm salt water rinse. This specifically can help with sore throats and provide some relief. 
  • Drink some herbal tea. Many herbal teas can provide immune system support and if you choose a hot tea, it can provide relief for a sore throat. (Some herbs that are good to add are cloves, garlic, turmeric, ginger, and green or black tea.) 
  • Get a humidifier. Humidifiers are great for combatting dryness and can clear your sinuses. 
  • Use essential oils. Though not everyone subscribes to essential oils, many people do find they help fight and prevent the flu. The best oil to use is tea tree oil. This can be put into lotions, hand soaps, or diffusers. Essential oils should only be put onto skin and not ingested. 

Should I Get a Flu Test?

The symptoms of flu mirror many different respiratory illnesses and during this pandemic, they often mirror the symptoms of COVID-19. It can be beneficial to get a flu test to determine whether you have the flu since it is impossible to tell from symptoms alone. Since the flu is contagious, it's good to know if you have contracted it. That being said, regardless of what you are sick with, you should try to considerate of those around you and not spread your illness. Your healthcare provider can administer a swab and send it to a lab for testing. As with COVID-19, there are rapid tests but often those are not as accurate. 

A test can provide clarity for you and give you direction for treatment and whether you should limit contact. A test also may be required for a healthcare provider to give further treatment and medications. 

The Flu Vaccine

Luckily, the flu does have a vaccine. The CDC has explained that antiviral medications cannot be used in place of a vaccine. Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a vaccine every year, according to the CDC's website. Some people will still get the flu despite getting the vaccine, that being said it is still the most effective form of prevention against contracting the flu. 

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