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What Is the Flu?

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Worried about catching the flu? Want to learn some ways to prevent it? Then read on to learn more about influenza -- what it is, how it's spread, and who's at greatest risk for getting it. Knowledge is power when it comes to preventing flu!

What is the flu?

Influenza, commonly known as the "flu," is an extremely contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza A or B viruses. Flu appears most frequently in winter and early spring. The flu virus attacks the body by spreading through the upper and/or lower respiratory tract.

What's the difference between a cold and flu?

The common cold and flu are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. Although the symptoms can be similar, flu is much worse. A cold may drag you down a bit, but the flu can make you shudder at the very thought of getting out of bed.

Congestion, sore throat, and sneezing are common with colds. Both cold and flu bring coughing, headache, and chest discomfort. With the flu, though, you are likely to run a high fever for several days and have body aches, fatigue, and weakness. Symptoms of the flu also tend to come on abruptly. Usually, complications from colds are relatively minor, but a severe case of flu can lead to a life-threatening illness such as pneumonia.

More than 100 types of cold viruses are known, and new strains of flu evolve every few years. Since both diseases are viral, antibiotics cannot conquer cold or flu. Remember: Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections.

Two antiviral medications are available to treat flu. But there are no medications that specifically defeat the common cold. Antibiotics may be helpful only if there is a secondary bacterial infection.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Treatment.

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