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Seasonal flu basics

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, trav...

What you should know about the flu

Getting the flu is awful, and it can be very dangerous. The best way to avoid the flu is to educate yourself about it. Here are some important questions and answers about flu season and your health.

Woman checking temperature

What is the flu?

The flu is a nasty little virus that attacks the respiratory system. It's also pretty contagious, so it spreads fast. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, "Influenza symptoms come on quickly in the form of fever, dry cough, sore throat, headache, extreme tiredness, stuffed-up nose and body aches. These symptoms can be severe and put you in bed for several days."

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Is the flu a stomach bug?

You've probably heard people refer to a stomach bug as the "stomach flu," but the flu rarely shows symptoms that relate to the digestive system. Upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting are usually the result of a parasite, bacteria or virus, but not the flu.

When are people most likely to get the flu?

Flu season starts in the fall, usually in October or early November, and runs through the winter. In bad years, the flu season sometimes runs even into the spring.

How bad is it?

The flu affects everyone differently. A healthy person with a strong immune system may be down for just a few days, while a person without those advantages may fall seriously ill. In the worst cases, the flu can lead to death.

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What complications can the flu cause?

The most common complications of the flu are dehydration and pneumonia. The flu also can worsen chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and diabetes, according to the CDC.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is susceptible to the flu, but some people are at a higher risk for developing complications. These include those over 50, children between 6 months and 18 years, anyone who is pregnant or caring for an infant during flu season, and anyone with a weakened immune system, according to the CDC.

How do you prevent it?

The best way to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot. According to the CDC, everyone should get a flu shot, every single year. While the flu shot doesn't make you 100-percent immune, it does significantly reduce your risks of contracting the virus. It also helps reduce your risk of complications if you do come down with the flu.

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According to the CDC, you can also help avoid the flu by avoiding those with the virus, washing your hands frequently and staying as healthy as possible.

Why a shot every year?

Every flu season is different and typically features different viruses from previous years. The viruses that circulate one year may be less severe, while the following year may see a record numbers of deaths and serious complications. A particularly bad strain of the flu can cause even the healthiest person to become seriously ill.

Your body takes two weeks after the flu shot to build up immunity. In the meantime, try to stay away from people with the flu, and wash your hands often.

More on flu prevention

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Are you at risk for the flu?
Protecting your children from the flu

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