What is The FLU?

cold or flu?

What is the Flu?

In everyday life, the term ‘flu’ is often popularly used to refer to any number of illnesses. You may even have heard people talk about a case of ‘stomach flu’, which usually means they were experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. This condition is actually not the flu at all, but more likely a stomach condition called gastroenteritis.1

The condition influenza – or ‘the flu’ for short – is actually a respiratory infection that can cause fevers, headaches, coughs, sore throats and muscle aches, but rarely causes upset stomach or vomiting. The more time someone spends near a flu sufferer, the more likely they are to get flu themselves.. In the U.S., for example, 5-20% of the population gets the flu every year.1 One reason the illness is so common is that flu can be caused by a number of different viruses.1

All flu viruses attack the body’s respiratory system – the lungs and the airways, including the throat and nose – causing classic flu symptoms.

Tell tale signs of flu include:1

  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body chills
  • Muscle aches or body aches
  • Tiredness

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between the flu and a cold by symptoms alone. However, in general flu has a quicker onset, has worse symptoms and may be associated with fever and muscle pain.2,3 With a common cold, the symptoms tend to come on gradually and usually only affect the nose, throat, sinuses and upper chest.

Flu viruses are airborne viruses, meaning they travel through the air from person to person. The virus typically enters the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes – by being breathed in or, when the hands pick up the virus and come into contact with the mouth, nose or eyes.

Most often, this happens because people with the flu carry the virus on their hands, either from coughing or sneezing into their hands. Healthy people commonly pick up the flu from hand-to-hand contact, or from touching objects that carry flu germs after being recently touched by someone who is sick.4

Needless to say, one of the best ways to protect the body from flu is by frequent hand washing during flu season. Getting an annual flu vaccine is also a good way to keep from getting sick.  

In addition, talk to your doctor about whether a flu vaccine may be appropriate for you.

In most cases, people with the flu will recover in 5 to 7 days. The key is to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicine may also help decrease the severity of the symptoms.

For elderly people, young babies or anyone with a weak immune system the flu can be more serious, even fatal. As always, if you have any doubts, please consult your doctor.


  1. Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Entry accessed: Flu. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/flu.html
  2. Common Cold Centre. Cardiff University. General common cold information. Available at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/biosi/subsites/cold/commoncold.html. Accessed September 2010.
  3. WebMD Flu Guide. Available at http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/flu-guide/is-it-cold-flu. Accessed September 2010.
  4. NHS Choices. Seasonal Flu, Available at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Flu/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Accessed September 2010