Signs and Symptoms of the Flu or Influenza
In short, influenza is no walk in the park. Fever, chills, cough, muscle or body aches are all common flu symptoms, and some people also experience diarrhea or vomiting, says flu expert Norman Moore, Ph.D., director of infectious diseases scientific affairs for Abbott. “These can come on suddenly and often point to influenza, but someone with the flu might not necessarily experience all of these symptoms,” says Moore. “For instance, not everyone with the flu spikes a fever, and children are more likely than adults to have vomiting and diarrhea.” (Side note: While some people have gastrointestinal symptoms with the flu, gastroenteritis a.k.a the stomach flu is a separate virus and illness that doesn’t affect your respiratory system.)
How Dangerous Is the Flu?
Influenza symptoms can be severe and even deadly. During the 2017-2018 flu season in the US, more than 959,000 people were hospitalized and over 79,400 people died, according to the CDC’s estimates. And the aforementioned flu symptoms aren’t the only thing you have to worry about. “Flu symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and fatigue can be severe, but the most dangerous consequences of the flu are its complications,” says Moore. “For example, flu virus infection may lead to sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, organ failure, sepsis, and even death. Additionally, flu also can worsen chronic medical problems such as asthma and heart disease.” Children, people aged 65 or older, and people with chronic conditions are more at risk for serious symptoms, according to the CDC.
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How Is the Flu Diagnosed and Treated?
Doctors often diagnose the flu based on symptoms alone, but sometimes they’ll suggest you take a flu test for added certainty that you’re dealing with the flu and not another health issue. The swab tests are administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, urgent care centers, and ERs. Making the effort to seek a diagnosis if you’re experiencing flu symptoms is beneficial, says Moore. “Getting the right diagnosis as soon as possible is important because it allows people with the flu to start treatment earlier when those treatments work best. Without testing, patients are more likely to receive antibiotics inappropriately—for example, if a patient actually has the flu or another viral illness,” he says. “Not only does the inappropriate use of antibiotics not help someone with the flu, it can lead to more antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could do further harm.”