Most people will experience several bouts of influenza throughout their lifetime—an estimated 10-25% of Canadians get the flu each year, and thousands are hospitalized as a result of its complications.
The flu is an infection of the respiratory tract that is caused by the influenza virus. It’s spread mainly through airborne transmission, when an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks. A person can infect others one day before having flu symptoms, and up to five days after becoming ill.
Cold or Flu?
Though the common cold and seasonal influenza share similar symptoms, there are key differences between the two that can help you identify which you may have.
Typical cold symptoms have a gradual onset and may start with a sore throat or irritated sinuses. The most common signs of a cold are nasal congestion, sneezing, and runny nose. Symptoms can also include a cough, mild headache, and minor body aches. Young children may get a low-grade fever, but a fever in older children or adults typically indicates the flu. People are generally contagious during the first three days they have a cold. Symptoms tend to go away within a week.
Unlike the common cold, flu symptoms can begin suddenly and vigorously, often starting with a high-grade fever, headache, body aches, and fatigue. Also, flu symptoms can include a dry cough, sore throat, and sometimes a runny or stuffy nose. Symptoms are generally more severe with the flu than with a cold and can last for a week or more—though they tend to improve gradually after two to five days. You should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone to avoid passing your illness to others.
Some strategies can help you avoid getting sick. A vaccine is your best chance of preventing influenza. Current guidelines recommend that anyone over six months of age should receive an annual flu vaccine. Health Canada also urges that those at high risk for complications from the flu, including young children, pregnant women, people with certain chronic conditions, and those 65 years or older, also receive an annual shot.
Other flu prevention tips include:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick and stay away from others when you feel unwell
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; to avoid contaminating your hands, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow
- Wash your hands often, using soap and warm water
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated with germs
- Get plenty of sleep, stay physically active, and drink plenty of water to keep your immune system strong
- Manage your stress and eat a nutritious diet, rich in healthy grains, fruits, vegetables and fibre
If You Get Sick
If you get the flu, stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away to avoid spreading the illness. To ease your symptoms, try the following:
- Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest
- Try gargling salt water made from dissolving ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in an 8-ounce glass of warm water to relieve a sore throat
- Drink warm liquids, such as tea or soup, and add moisture to the air with a vaporizer or humidifier to help ease congestion
The flu is usually manageable with rest and over-the-counter medicine. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to help shorten your sick time. Don’t be surprised though, if your doctor doesn’t prescribe antibiotics; they’re only effective against bacteria and will be of no use against the flu virus.
Potentially serious health complications can occur in people suffering from the flu. Call your doctor if you think your symptoms are worsening or if you have a condition such as asthma, diabetes, or are pregnant. Seek immediate medical attention if you display any of the following warning signs:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with a fever and worse cough
Did you know?
Canada’s flu season usually starts in October, when colder temperatures bring people into closer contact indoors. The best time to get a flu shot is in October or November before the virus is circulating widely—but it’s never too late Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
For more information about this year’s flu shot, visit ontario.ca.