What's the Flu?

Influenza (say: in-floo-EN-zah) is also called the flu. It's an infection that causes a 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-kroh-OR-guh-niz-uhm), which means it's so small that you would need a strong microscope to see it.

What's the Flu Vaccine?

Health experts recommend that all people age 6 months and older get the flu vaccine (say: vak-SEEN) each year. If you're a kid, that means you!

The flu 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.

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.

Here's what the vaccine means for most kids:

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

So if you're a kid who has asthma, diabetes, or another health problem, it's especially important that you get the flu vaccine.

Flu vaccines are usually given in the fall, before flu season starts. Flu season — the months of the year when a lot of people have the flu and it's easy to catch it — usually starts in October and ends in May.

Why Get a Vaccine Every Year?

You might wonder why you have to get a flu vaccine every year. Here's why: There are lots of different flu viruses. Each year, researchers choose the three or four viruses most likely to cause trouble. The flu vaccine includes protection against those three or four, which can 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 also can catch the flu if those drops get on your hands and you touch your mouth or nose. No wonder people are always saying to cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands. And while you're at it, wash your hands well and often!

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.

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

Most of the time, kids with the flu feel better in about a week. Until they do, they 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: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: September 2015

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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Related Resources
Web SiteCDC: Flu (Influenza) The CDC's site has up-to-date information on flu outbreaks, immunizations, symptoms, prevention, and more.
Web SiteStalking the Mysterious Microbe On this American Society for Microbiology site, kids can learn more about bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.
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