What Is the Flu?

Influenza (say: in-floo-en-zah) is also called the flu. It's an infection that causes fever, chills, cough, body aches, headaches, and sometimes earaches or sinus problems. The flu is caused by the influenza virus (say: vy-rus). A virus is a microorganism (say: my-croh-or-gah-nih-zum), which means it's so small that you can't see it without a strong microscope.

One Shot Needed This Year

Last year, there was a lot of talk about the H1N1 (Swine) Flu virus. That’s because it was a new type of flu virus and the regular flu vaccine (say: vak-seen) didn’t include protection from it. That’s why people needed two different flu shots. But this year, the regular flu vaccine has been changed so that it will protect against H1N1.

The vaccine is available as a shot (injected through the skin) or as a spray mist (into the nostrils). Most kids older than 2 can get the spray mist vaccine. Kids younger than age 9 need two doses of the vaccine if they have never had a flu shot or did not get the H1N1 vaccine during the 2009-2010 flu season. Older kids and teens need only one dose.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu vaccine for all people age 6 months and older. If you’re a kid, that means you!

Certain people are at higher risk of complications from the flu, including:

  • pregnant women
  • children younger than age 5, especially those younger than 2
  • people age 65 and older
  • people of any age who have long term health conditions

So if you’re a kid who has asthma, diabetes, or another health problem, your doctor will recommend you get a flu shot.
Flu vaccines are usually given in the fall, before flu season starts. Flu season means the months of the year when a lot of people have the flu and it's easy to catch it. It usually starts in November and ends in May.

Why Get a Shot?

If you get the flu vaccine, by nose spray or shot, it will protect you from getting a bad case of the flu. You either won't get the flu at all or, if you do get it, you will have only mild symptoms and you should get better pretty quickly.

You might wonder why you have to get a flu shot every year. Here’s why: There are lots of different flu viruses. Remember H1N1 (swine) flu? Each year, researchers choose the three viruses most likely to cause trouble. The flu vaccine includes protection against those three, which vary from year to year.

How Does the Flu Spread?

This virus gets around in little drops that spray out of an infected person's mouth and nose when he or she sneezes, coughs, or even laughs. You can catch the flu from someone who has it if you breathe in some of those tiny flu-infected drops.

You can also catch the flu if those drops get on your hands and you touch your mouth or nose. No wonder people are always saying to cover your mouth when you sneeze. And while you’re at it, wash your hands!

What If You Get the Flu?

If your doctor thinks you might have the flu, sometimes he or she will use a long cotton swab to get a sample of the gunk in your nose. Testing this sample in a lab can determine if you have the flu.

But usually this isn't necessary. Based on your symptoms and how you look during the visit, your doctor can usually tell if you have the flu, especially during times when a lot of flu is going around your town.

Once your doctor says you have the flu, you can start taking these steps to feel better:

  • Rest in bed or on the couch.
  • Drink lots of liquids, like water, chicken broth, and other fluids.
  • Take the medicine your mom or dad gives you to ease your fever, aches, and pains.

Tell your mom or dad if you have trouble breathing, if you are feeling worse instead of better, or if you aren’t peeing as much as usual. These are signs you may need to see the doctor again.

Most of the time, you'll feel better in about a week. Until then, you'll have to stay home from school and take it easy. We hope you're flu-free this year, but if you do get the flu, now you know what to do!

Reviewed by: Kate Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: August 2010


Related Sites

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
American Lung Association

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Who Needs a Flu Shot?
What to Do if You Get the Flu