Three of the four types of influenza viruses affect people, Type A, Type B, and Type C. Type D has not been known to infect people, but is believed to have the potential to do so. Usually, the virus is spread through the air from coughs or sneezes. This is believed to occur mostly over relatively short distances. It can also be spread by touching surfaces contaminated by the virus and then touching the mouth or eyes. A person may be infectious to others both before and during the time they are showing symptoms. The infection may be confirmed by testing the throat, sputum, or nose for the virus. A number of rapid tests are available; however, people may still have the infection even if the results are negative. A type of polymerase chain reaction that detects the virus's RNA is more accurate.
All three findings, especially fever, were less sensitive in people over 60 years of age.
Symptoms of influenza, with fever and cough the most common symptoms.
Approximately 33% of people with influenza are asymptomatic.
Symptoms of influenza can start quite suddenly one to two days after infection. Usually the first symptoms are chills and body aches, but fever is also common early in the infection, with body temperatures ranging from 38 to 39 °C (approximately 100 to 103 °F). Many people are so ill that they are confined to bed for several days, with aches and pains throughout their bodies, which are worse in their backs and legs.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the common cold and influenza in the early stages of these infections. Influenza is a mixture of symptoms of common cold and pneumonia, body ache, headache, and fatigue. Diarrhea is not usually a symptom of influenza in adults, although it has been seen in some human cases of the H5N1 "bird flu" and can be a symptom in children. The symptoms most reliably seen in influenza are shown in the adjacent table.
Since antiviral drugs are effective in treating influenza if given early (see treatment section, below), it can be important to identify cases early. Of the symptoms listed above, the combinations of fever with cough, sore throat and/or nasal congestion can improve diagnostic accuracy. Two decision analysis studies suggest that during local outbreaks of influenza, the prevalence will be over 70%, and thus patients with any of these combinations of symptoms may be treated with neuraminidase inhibitors without testing. Even in the absence of a local outbreak, treatment may be justified in the elderly during the influenza season as long as the prevalence is over 15%.
The available laboratory tests for influenza continue to improve. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an up-to-date summary of available laboratory tests. According to the CDC, rapid diagnostic tests have a sensitivity of 50–75% and specificity of 90–95% when compared with viral culture.
Occasionally, influenza can cause severe illness including primary viral pneumonia or secondary bacterial pneumonia. The obvious symptom is trouble breathing. In addition, if a child (or presumably an adult) seems to be getting better and then relapses with a high fever, that is a danger sign since this relapse can be bacterial pneumonia.
Sometimes, influenza may have abnormal presentations, like confusion in the elderly and a sepsis-like syndrome in the young. Encephalitis due to the flu is rare but not unheard of.