Overview

The flu (influenza) is a contagious virus that anyone can get. But there are several things you can do to avoid catching it, or spreading it to others.

If you think that you might have the flu you should stay home and self-isolate. 

You can call Telehealth at 1-866-797-0000 to talk to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You do not need to provide your OHIP number and all information is confidential.

COVID-19

Some of the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to the flu, and it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

If you think you have COVID-19, you can get tested. If you have symptoms, you should stay home and self-isolate for 14 days or until you get your results.

If you don’t have COVID-19, you may have the flu or another respiratory illness.

When to get the flu shot

Flu season typically runs from late fall to early spring.

Flu shots are now available for all Ontarians. You should get a flu shot as soon as possible because it takes two weeks to take effect.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) now recommends that COVID-19 vaccines may be given at the same time as the flu vaccine. 

Talk to your doctor or pharmacy to learn more. 

syringe with needle

The flu shot is your best defence

This year’s flu season is taking place at the same time as COVID-19. Don’t take any unnecessary risks with your health. Get the flu shot as early in the season as possible.

The flu shot is recommended for everyone 6 months old and older. It is:

  • safe (including for kids and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding)
  • free
  • available from your doctor or nurse practitioner, and at participating pharmacies and local public health units across the province
  • proven to reduce the number of doctor visits, hospitalizations and deaths related to the flu
  • different each year because the virus changes frequently – so you need to get it every fall

Where to get the flu vaccine

6 months up to 2 years old

Children six months to two years old can get their flu shot from a doctor, nurse practitioner or local public health unit. Children under two years old cannot get a flu shot at a pharmacy.

2 to 64 years old

Children as young as two years of age can now get their flu shot at a participating pharmacy.

65 and older

For the 2021/2022 season, if you're 65 and older, there are three different flu shots available:

  • The standard-dose vaccine protects against four strains of flu virus
  • The adjuvanted vaccine protects against three strains of flu virus and contains an adjuvant (a substance added to a vaccine that helps the recipient develop an improved immune response).
  • The high-dose vaccine, (also called "Fluzone® HighDose Quadrivalent") protects against four strains of flu virus, but in higher doses.

All three flu vaccines are safe, effective and offer strong protection to seniors. Talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner, pharmacist or public health unit about which option is best for you. To get any of the standard dose, the adjuvanted or the high dose:

Other tips to avoid getting – and spreading – the flu

washing hands under a tap with bubbles

Wash your hands often

  • even after getting the flu shot, washing with soap and water for at least 15 seconds helps keep the virus from spreading
  • if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer (gel or wipes) with at least 70% alcohol
 
person coughing into their sleeve

Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze

  • use a tissue and throw it out rather than putting it in your pocket, on a desk or table
  • if you don't have a tissue, cough into your upper sleeve
 
keep your hands out of eyes, nose and mouth

Don't touch your face

  • the flu virus spreads when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk and droplets enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth
 
avoid crowds and your workplace

Stay at home when you're sick

  • viruses spread more easily in group settings, such as businesses, schools and nursing homes
 
wiping down a surface

Clean (and disinfect) surfaces and shared items

  • viruses can live for 24 to 48 hours on hard surfaces such as countertops, door handles, computer keyboards and phones

Who is most at risk

Complications from the flu can include serious conditions, like pneumonia or heart attacks and, in some cases, death. Flu causes about 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.

Some people are more vulnerable to complications and hospitalization from the flu:

  • babies under 6 months old are too young to get the flu shot, but they'll get some protection if their parent got the flu shot while they were pregnant
  • children under 5 years of age, because their immune systems are developing, and their airways are small and more easily blocked
  • people 65 years old and older, because their immune systems are weaker and they are more likely to have an underlying condition that increases their risk
  • pregnant people, because their immune system, heart and lungs change – especially later in pregnancy – making them more likely to get seriously ill from the flu
  • people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes

Symptoms

Symptoms typically appear 1 to 4 days after you've been exposed to the virus, but you're still contagious even if you don't show symptoms yet.

Most people who get the flu will recover within 7 to 10 days.

You may have caught the flu if you have:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • runny eyes
  • stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • extreme weakness and tiredness
  • loss of appetite

Some people may have diarrhea or vomiting, though this is more common in children than adults.

Flu vs. common cold

The symptoms of the flu and the common cold can be very similar but, unlike a case of the common cold, the flu can lead to serious health problems like pneumonia.

Use this chart to help determine if you have a cold or the flu.

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Rare Common, high (102°F - 104°F or 39°- 40°C)
Starts suddenly, lasts 3 to 4 days
Not everyone with the flu gets a fever
General aches and pains Sometimes, mild Common, often severe
Muscle aches Sometimes, usually mild Often, can be severe
Feeling tired and weak Sometimes, mild Common, may last 2 to 3 weeks or more
Fatigue (extreme tiredness) Unusual Common, starts early
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Complications Can lead to sinus congestion or earache Can lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure, worsen a current chronic respiratory condition, be life-threatening
Chest discomfort and/or coughing Sometimes, mild to moderate Common, can become severe

If you get the flu

Be sure to:

  • stay home and get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids
  • speak to your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist about over-the-counter medications that can help you feel better (such as basic pain or fever relievers), but do not give acetylsalicylic acid (ASA or Aspirin®) to anyone under 18 years old
  • treat muscle pain using a hot water bottle or heating pad – apply heat for short periods of time
  • take a warm bath
  • gargle with a glass of warm salt water or suck on hard candy or lozenges
  • use spray or saline drops for a stuffy nose
  • avoid alcohol, caffeine and tobacco

Call your doctor or nurse practitioner if:

  • you don't start to feel better after a few days
  • your symptoms get worse
  • you are in a high-risk group and develop flu symptoms
Updated: November 02, 2021
Published: October 20, 2014