Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
In this Article
- Flu (influenza, conventional, H1N1, H3N2, and bird flu [H5N1]) facts
- What is flu (influenza)?
- Flu vs. cold
- Flu vs. food poisoning
- What are the causes of the flu (influenza)?
- When does flu season begin and end?
- What are flu (influenza) symptoms in adults and in children?
- Does a child's first flu infection help to determine the patient's lifelong risk to other viruses?
- What is the incubation period for the flu?
- How long is the flu contagious, and how long does the flu last?
- How do health-care professionals diagnose the flu (influenza)?
- How does flu spread?
- What is the key to flu (influenza) prevention?
- Are there any flu shot or nasal spray vaccine side effects in adults or in children?
- How effective is the flu vaccine?
- Why should the flu (influenza) vaccine be taken every year?
- What are some flu treatments an individual can do at home (home remedies)?
- What types of doctors treat the flu?
- What medications treat the flu?
- What can people eat when they have the flu?
- When should a person go to the emergency department for the flu?
- Who should receive the flu vaccine, and who has the highest risk factors? When should someone get the flu shot?
- What is the prognosis for patients who get the flu? What are possible complications of the flu?
- Can the flu be deadly?
- What is the bird (avian) flu?
- Do antiviral agents protect people from the flu?
- Is it safe to get a flu shot that contains thimerosal?
- Where can people find additional information about the flu?
- Slideshow: Finding Relief for Your Cough
- Pictures of Natural Cold & Flu Remedies - Slideshow
- Pictures of 10 Foods to Eat When You Have the Flu - Slideshow
What is flu (influenza)?
Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is an illness caused by RNA viruses that infect the respiratory tract of many animals, birds, and humans. In most people, the infection results in the person getting a fever, cough, headache, and malaise (tired, no energy); some people also may develop a sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The majority of individuals has flu symptoms for about one to two weeks and then recovers with no problems. However, compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) infection can cause a more severe illness with a mortality rate (death rate) of about 0.1% of people who are infected with the virus.
The above is the usual situation for the yearly occurring "conventional" or "seasonal" flu strains. However, there are situations in which some flu outbreaks are severe. These severe outbreaks occur when a portion of the human population is exposed to a flu strain against which the population has little or no immunity because the virus has become altered in a significant way. These outbreaks are usually termed epidemics. Unusually severe worldwide outbreaks (pandemics) have occurred several times in the last hundred years since influenza virus was identified in 1933. By an examination of preserved tissue, the worst influenza pandemic (also termed the Spanish flu or Spanish influenza) occurred in 1918 when the virus caused between 40-100 million deaths worldwide, with a mortality rate estimated to range from 2%-20%.
In April 2009, a new influenza strain against which the world population has little or no immunity was isolated from humans in Mexico. It quickly spread throughout the world so fast that the WHO declared this new flu strain (first termed novel H1N1 influenza A swine flu, often later shortened to H1N1 or swine flu) as the cause of a pandemic on June 11, 2009. This was the first declared flu pandemic in 41 years. Fortunately, there was a worldwide response that included vaccine production, good hygiene practices (especially hand washing) were emphasized, and the virus (H1N1) caused far less morbidity and mortality than was expected and predicted. The WHO declared the pandemic's end on Aug. 10, 2010, because it no longer fit into the WHO's criteria for a pandemic.
A new influenza strain, H3N2, was identified in 2011, but this strain has caused only about 330 infections with one death in the U.S. Another strain, H5N1, a bird flu virus, has been identified since 2003 and has caused about 650 human infections; this virus has not been detected in the U.S. and currently is not known to be easily spread among people in contrast to other flu strains. Unfortunately, people infected with H5N1 have a high death rate (about 60% of infected people die); currently, H5N1 is not readily transferred from person to person like other flu viruses.
The most recent data for the mortality rate (death rate) for the United States in 2014 shows 823.7 deaths per 100,000 people with the flu, and the infant mortality rate is 5.82 deaths per 1,000 live births according to the National Vital Statistics system in the U.S.
Haemophilus influenzae is a bacterium that was incorrectly considered to cause the flu until the virus was demonstrated to be the correct cause in 1933. This bacterium can cause lung infections in infants and children, and it occasionally causes ear, eye, sinus, joint, and a few other infections, but it does not cause the flu.
Another confusing term is stomach flu. This term refers to a gastrointestinal tract infection, not a respiratory infection like influenza (flu); stomach flu (gastroenteritis) is not caused by influenza viruses.
Although initially symptoms of influenza may mimic those of a cold, influenza is more debilitating with symptoms of fatigue, fever, and respiratory congestion. Colds can be caused by over 100 different virus types, but only influenza viruses (and subtypes) A, B, and C cause the flu. In addition, colds do not lead to life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia, but severe infections with influenza viruses can lead to pneumonia or even death.
Flu vs. cold
Compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) infection usually causes a more severe illness with a mortality rate (death rate) of about 0.1% of people who are infected with the virus. Cold symptoms (for example, sore throat, runny nose, cough (with possible phlegm production), congestion, and slight fever) are similar to flu symptoms, but the flu symptoms are more severe, last longer, and may include vomiting, diarrhea, and cough that is often a dry cough.
The following table is provided by the CDC to help distinguish between a cold and influenza:
|Signs and Symptoms||Influenza||Cold|
|Fever||Usual; lasts 3-4 days||Rare|
|Aches||Usual; often severe||Slight|
|Chest discomfort, cough||Common; can be severe||Mild to moderate; hacking cough|
Flu vs. food poisoning
Although some of the symptoms of influenza may mimic those of food poisoning, others do not. Most symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. Note that the majority of food poisoning symptoms are related to the gastrointestinal tract, except for fever. The common signs and symptoms of the flu include fever but also include symptoms that are not typical for food poisoning, because the flu is a respiratory disease. Consequently, respiratory symptoms of nasal congestion, dry cough, and some breathing problems help distinguish the flu from food poisoning.
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