Your head aches, and so does every bone in your body. You're
cold one minute and hot the next. Your throat is scratchy and
you're starting to cough. You may be getting the flu!
If you have the flu, you'll have lots of company. Each year
from November to April, all across the United States, as many as 60
million people come down with the flu. Although children get the
flu most often, people in every age group - including teens - can
What Is the Flu?
Flu is the common name for influenza (pronounced: in-floo-
-za), a virus that attacks the respiratory system.
Usually when you're sick with a virus, your body builds up a
defense system by making antibodies against it, so you don't
get that particular virus strain again. Unfortunately, flu viruses
mutate (change) each year, so you aren't protected from getting
the flu forever.
Some years the change in the flu virus is slight. So even if you
get the flu, it's a mild case because the antibodies from
having the flu before give you partial protection. But every
10 years or so the flu virus undergoes a major change and many
people get severe cases. These large-scale outbreaks are called
. If they spread worldwide, they're called
How Is the Flu Spread?
The flu virus spreads through the air when a person who has the
virus sneezes, coughs, or speaks. The flu can even be passed on if
a person touches an object that someone with the virus sneezed or
coughed on. People carrying the virus can be contagious 1 day
before to 5 days after their symptoms appear. So they can pass
it on before they even know they're sick.
Flu epidemics often start in schools and then move quickly
through a community as students spread the virus to family members
and people around them. In an average year, 5% to 20% of the people
in an area can become sick.
How Do I Know if I Have the Flu?
Flu symptoms - like headache, fever, chills, muscle aches, and
dry cough - appear anywhere from 1 to 4 days after a person has
been exposed to the virus. Someone with the flu can have a
temperature as high as 104Âº Fahrenheit (40Âº Celsius). People with
the flu often feel achy and exhausted and may lose their
The fever and achiness usually disappear within 2 to 3 days, but
they can be followed by a stuffy nose or a sore throat. The stuffy
nose, sore throat, cough, and a feeling of tiredness may linger for
a week or more.
The flu can sometimes cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and
diarrhea in addition to the more common symptoms mentioned above.
If you have only vomiting and diarrhea without the other flu
symptoms, you probably have
-tuss), an illness that is caused by different viruses or
Although you may feel miserable if you get the flu, it's
unlikely to be serious. It's rare that healthy teens have
complications like pneumonia or bronchitis from the flu. Older
adults (over age 65), young kids (under age 5), and people with
chronic medical conditions are more likely to become seriously ill
with the flu.
What to Do When the Flu Bugs You
If you get the flu, the best way to take care of yourself is to
rest in bed and drink lots of liquids like water and other
noncaffeinated drinks. Stay home from school until you feel better
and your temperature has returned to normal.
You probably don't need to contact your doctor unless
you're not getting better, you develop complications (like
trouble breathing) or you have a medical condition (for example,
diabetes, heart problems, asthma, or other lung problems).
Most teens can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help
with fever and aches. Avoid aspirin or any products that
contain aspirin because they put kids and teens at greater risk of
, a very serious illness that sometimes follows infection with the
flu virus and can lead to liver failure.
Antibiotics don't help people with the flu get better
because they don't work on viruses. Sometimes doctors can
prescribe an antiviral medicine to reduce the length of time
someone is ill from the flu. These medicines are effective only
against some types of flu virus and must be taken within 48
hours of the appearance of flu symptoms to be effective. Because of
potential side effects, doctors usually only use this medicine for
people who are very ill or who are at risk for serious
complications, especially elderly patients.
Vaccine to the Rescue?
You can do some things during flu outbreaks to avoid getting
Wash your hands
frequently, and avoid sharing cups, utensils, or towels with
others. If you do catch the flu, use tissues whenever you sneeze or
cough to avoid spreading the virus.
Your doctor may recommend that you get a
to help you avoid getting the flu. Each year, scientists develop a
vaccine made up of the flu viruses that are believed to be the ones
most likely to infect people that year.
Flu vaccines are available as a shot or nasal mist. The shot
contains killed flu viruses that won't cause you to get the
flu, but will make your body create antibodies that fight off
infection if you encounter the live flu virus. The nasal mist
contains weakened live flu viruses. Because it contains live
viruses, the mist is not for people with weakened immune systems or
certain health conditions. It is only for healthy, non-pregnant,
people between the ages of 2 and 49 years.
Most doctors recommend yearly flu vaccines for people over age
50, all kids and teens between 6 months and 18 years of age
(especially those between 6 and 59 months), and people (including
teens) with medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis, asthma,
heart disease, or sickle cell disease.
You might also want to get a flu shot if you live with people
who are at risk for health problems if they get the flu, such as
the elderly and young children. Ask your doctor about getting a flu
shot especially if you live in the same house as a grandparent
or baby (or if you babysit or are in close contact with kids
younger than 5).
Other people who may benefit from the vaccine are those who are
infected with the HIV virus or have diabetes, kidney problems, or
other chronic (long-term) medical conditions.
In times when the vaccine is in short supply, some people (such
as elderly or sick people) need it more than others. The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sometimes recommends that
only certain high-risk groups be vaccinated when flu shot supplies
are limited. Talk with your doctor if you're interested in
getting a flu shot.
If you get a flu shot, you may have a mild reaction, such as a
fever, sore muscles, and tiredness, but most people don't have
any reaction. With the nasal mist vaccine, some people develop a
runny nose, headache, and low fever.
The flu vaccine is usually given a few weeks before flu
season begins to give the body a chance to develop antibodies
beforehand. But a person can still get a flu vaccine even after flu
season starts. Anyone allergic to eggs should not get a flu vaccine
because the viruses for the vaccine are grown in chicken eggs.
If you do get the flu this season, take care of yourself and
call your doctor with any questions or concerns. When you're
feeling bad it can help to remember that the flu only lasts a few
days and you'll be back to your normal activities before too
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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