COVID Update: Masks are still required in health care settings, even if you’re fully vaccinated. Read our FAQs.

How the Flu Gets You

It's still not too late for a flu shot

A family of four shares a group hug in an outdoor garden environment.

by G. Ryan Dominguez, Family Medicine Physician

Have you had your flu shot yet? Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not too late.

Getting a flu shot now may help you ward off several miserable days in bed with a fever, cough, sore throat, headaches and body aches.

In some cases, the flu can also cause digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. And in the worst scenario, the flu can be deadly. In recent years, flu deaths have become more prevalent, especially among children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

How the flu gets you

Influenza, commonly known as flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a family of viruses. The virus travels through the air, so most people catch it by inhaling droplets when infected people around you cough or sneeze.

You also can become infected when you touch a remote control, telephone, doorknob or other object recently handled by a sick person and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. These are easy avenues for the flu virus to enter your body.

Once the virus gets in, it makes itself right at home. Symptoms often begin within a day or two after infection, and unlike a cold, they can come on very suddenly. The virus spreads quickly, too, since an infected individual is contagious usually about one day before symptoms start, to five days after the onset of symptoms. You can therefore spread the virus before you even know you have it.

Taking care of yourself

Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help. Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu® may shorten the length of the illness if you take them within two days of becoming sick. In most cases, though, once you have the flu it just has to run its course.

Time, rest and plenty of fluids are the best treatments; over-the-counter medications can help relieve cough, muscle aches, fever and other symptoms. Choose medications designed to treat only the symptoms you have to avoid over-medicating yourself. Follow the directions carefully and be especially aware of side effects such as dizziness and drowsiness.

Most flu symptoms should run their course within a week or so. However, even after the worst of the illness has passed, it can take a month or more to get your energy back and feel like your usual self again. Give your body time to get back up to speed.

Defending yourself against the flu

The flu shot can be one of your best defenses against illness. The specific strains used in the shot changes from year to year depending on which are expected to be most prevalent. No shot will protect against every flu bug, but it can increase your odds of escaping the most popular ones. Flu shots are very safe, and since the virus is dead, it can’t infect you with the flu.

Who should get a shot? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children ages six months to two years be vaccinated, as well as older children who have chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes. The vaccine is also recommended for the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, and anyone likely to be exposed to the virus, such as teachers or health care workers. Pregnant women should consult their obstetrician. Ask your doctor whether the flu shot is a good idea for you and your family.

An alternative to the flu shot exists on the market, the nasal-spray vaccine, or FluMist™.This is a live, weakened form of the flu and therefore has different guidelines.In general, it is indicated for use in healthy people age five to 49 years of age who are not pregnant. As always, ask your doctor if this form of vaccination is right for you.

Whether you get a flu shot or not, practice prevention

  • Wash your hands frequently, keep them away from your eyes, nose and mouth, and try to stay away from sick people.
  • If you’re the one who is sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and try to avoid touching other people or shared objects.
  • If you can, stay home from work or school until you are better.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information is provided by G. Ryan Dominguez, M.D., a family medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.