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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 and how you can protect yourself from it.

What is flu? arrow top

Teen girl in bed with the flu.Flu is an illness caused by an influenza virus. 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 may seem like a cold, but flu symptoms are usually 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, flu season usually starts in the fall and goes through early spring.
  • Flu germs may spread when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. You also might get the flu if you touch something that has flu germs on it and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.
  • The viruses that cause flu change over time. That's why you need a new vaccine each year.

Can a flu vaccine help? arrow top

Getting a flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. Here are some key points about the vaccine:

  • Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. It's best to get the vaccine as soon as it's available at your doctor's office, pharmacy, or health clinic. If you don't manage to get the vaccine right away, getting it later during flu season can help too.
  • The vaccine is considered very safe.
  • Some children 8 years old and younger may need two doses of the vaccine. A doctor or nurse can explain which children need two doses.
  • If you are sick and have a fever, ask your doctor if you should wait until you are better to get the vaccine.
  • If your family is worried about paying for the vaccine, keep in mind that most insurance plans cover the whole cost. Your family also can learn about getting help paying for vaccines if you don't have insurance or if your plan does not cover vaccines.

What else can I do to stay safe from flu? arrow 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. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. If you don't have soap and water, you can 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.
  • Protect your health by getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods.

What if I get the flu? arrow top

If you get the flu, ask your parents or doctor if you can take an antiviral medicine. An antiviral may help you feel better, but you need to take it within 48 hours of getting sick. You can also get relief from symptoms with over-the-counter medicines, but they don't help prevent spreading the flu to others.

If you get the flu, get plenty of rest. Also, drink clear fluids like water or sports drinks. Stay home at least 24 hours after your fever goes away to make sure that it's not coming back. (It counts only if your fever stays down by itself, without help from medicines that lower fever.) Read more about treating the flu.


Content last reviewed October 08, 2014
Page last updated October 08, 2014