Ask the Expert

The Flu: What You Need To Know

By Oct 20, 2011January 28th, 201514 Comments

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There’s no doubt about it: the 2011 flu season is upon us. So we’re back with another Ask The Expert post from Jen, where she dives deep and tells you what you need to know about the flu.

Last year around this time, I remember walking the hall of the ICU were I work, fearing for my life.

My unit was full of young healthy people who were fighting for their lives. These people were all around my age, they had no medical history and yet here they were on life support, not knowing from minute to minute if they were going to die.

I specifically remember a 29 year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant with her first child and she was dying.

Even though these people were my age and dying and their cases made me fear for my life, I still cared for them. I also knew that I was protected. Why? Because I received my flu shot.

That is right, all these people lay in the ICU fighting for their lives because they had the flu.

What is the flu?

The flu is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by the influenza virus. There are different strains of the flu, Influenza A; Influenza B and H1N1.

Most people catch the flu when they breathe in tiny droplets from coughs or sneezes of someone who has the flu. It is also spread when you touch a surface, such as a faucet handle or phone that has the virus on it, and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Symptoms appear 1 – 7 days later (usually within 2 – 3 days). The flu spreads easily. It often strikes a community all at once. Many students or workers become sick within 2 or 3 weeks of the flu’s arrival in a school or workplace.

Sometimes people confuse colds and flu. They do share some of the same symptoms. But most people get a cold several times each year and the flu only once every few years. People call a viral illness that makes them throw up or have diarrhea “stomach flu.” but this is incorrect. The flu virus does not cause the stomach symptoms. Flu infections mostly cause symptoms in the nose, throat, and lungs.

2011 Flu Season

Symptoms of the Flu

The flu usually begins quickly. The first symptoms are a fever between 102 and 106 °F. (An adult typically has a lower fever than a child.)
Other common symptoms include:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Flushed face
  • Headache
  • Lack of energy
  • Nausea and vomiting

Between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the fever and “whole body” symptoms begin to fade. Then breathing symptoms begin to increase.

  • The symptom is usually a dry cough.
  • Most people also develop a sore throat and headache.
  • Runny nose (a clear, watery nasal discharge) and sneezing are common.

These symptoms (except the cough) usually go away in 4 – 7 days. Sometimes, the fever returns. The cough and feeling tired may last for weeks.

Treatment of the Flu

Treatment of the flu is symptom based. So how do you treat your symptoms?
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help lower fever. Sometimes doctors suggest you use both types of medicine.

  • Take acetaminophen every 4 – 6 hours.
  • Take ibuprofen every 6 – 8 hours.
  • Do NOT use aspirin.

A fever does not need to come all the way down to normal. Most people will feel better when their temperature drops by even 1 degree.
Over-the-counter cold medicines may make some of your symptoms better. Cough drops will help with your sore throat.
Take these steps also:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco

What About Antiviral Medications?

Most people with milder symptoms feel better in 3 – 4 days. They do not need to see a doctor or take antiviral medications.
Doctors may give antiviral drugs to people:

  • Who become very sick with the flu
  • Who are at high risk for flu complications

These drugs may shorten the time you have symptoms by about 1 day. They work better if you start taking them within 2 days of your first symptoms.
The medicines that may be used are zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
Children at risk of a severe case of the flu may also need these medicines.

Don’t Ignore Prevention!

This is includes good hand hygiene, stay home if you are sick and a flu shot.

There are two types of flu vaccines: a flu shot and a nasal spray-type vaccine.
The flu shot contains killed (inactive) viruses, so it is not possible to get the flu from this type of vaccine. However, some people do get a low-grade fever for a day or two after the shot as their immune systems gear up to recognize the virus. The flu shot is approved for people age 6 months and older.

A nasal spray-type flu vaccine called FluMist uses a live, weakened virus instead of a dead one like the flu shot. It is approved for healthy people aged 2 to 49 who are not pregnant. The vaccine helps the lining of the nose fight off actual viral infections. It should not be used in those who have asthma or children under age 5 who have repeated wheezing episodes.

Prognosis of The Flu

Each year, millions of people in the United States get the flu. Most get better within a week or two.
But thousands become sick. They need to stay in the hospital. About 36,000 people die each year from complications of the flu. Anyone at any age can have serious complications from the flu, but those at highest risk include:

  • People over age 50
  • Children between 6 months and 2 years
  • Women more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season
  • Anyone living in a long-term care facility
  • Anyone with chronic heart, lung, or kidney conditions, diabetes, or a weakened immune system

Possible complications from the flu, especially for those at high risk, include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis (infection of the brain)
  • Bronchitis
  • Sinus infections
  • Ear infections

And as always, if you are sick and feel uncomfortable about treating for yourself or those in your family, please call your doctor.

For more information about the flu or flu vaccine please check out these sites


More from Jen in our Ask the Expert series:

Around these parts, Jen is our go-to SITStahs with the answers to your health questions. To ask a question of your own, be sure to visit her in The SITS Girls discussion forum here.

Also be sure to read last week’s post from Jen, where she helped us learn how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu.

About Alina Thomas

Alina is a Northern Virginia wedding photographer based out of Leesburg, VA. She has a passion for arts and design, and strives to express it through her work. She is creative at heart and loves nothing more than sharing her knowledge in photography with other Virginia wedding photographers on her blog each week. Alina loves being a new mom to her first-born and spending time with her husband who helps her run her businesses. Please feel free to follow her on: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Google+.


  • Yikes, looks like this post sparked some controversy. Personally I like to both eat/live healthy and get a flu shot, but that’s just me personally.

  • I’m sorry Brianna, but your post is quite ignorant and irresponsible. Flu shots are critical! I know people who “eat healthy” and do everything for their health but refuse to get flu shots and are very sick every year. My friend had to miss a month of work because she became so ill.

    Diet and exercise are very important but you still may get the flu. During the terrible winter of 1993-1994, I was sick continuously with the flu. I swore to myself that I would get a flu shot each year. I haven’t had the flu since. Everyone else in my department, who all refuse to get flu shots, spends the entire winter sniffling and sneezing.

    My mother always lived a very healthy lifestyle — no smoking, very little drinking, no processed foods, low-sodium diet, no white sugars, no fast foods, etc. One winter she didn’t get her flu shot. She became very ill with the flu and in a couple of days I had to rush her to the hospital with pneumonia. She spent several days in the hospital. So you see, Brianna, it is not “just the flu,” even though the flu kills many people each year. Yes, that’s right. People die from getting the flu.

    You have decided to deliberately misinterpret what the post says, so you are the irresponsible one.

    • Brianna says:

      New Jersey Memories, I never called Jen ignorant so you turning around my words (and most likely not reading my post in it’s entirety) and calling ME ignorant and irresponsible is uncalled for. Did you read my own words when I said: “Am I saying that no one should get the flu shot? Of course not, that would be wholly irresponsible in the same fashion as saying that everyone should get it.” I suppose not, otherwise your post wouldn’t be so riddled with anecdotal stories (which is purely case by case).
      For every story is posted about being stricken with the flu and were miserable, there is another story about someone who got the flu without the flu shot and survived well. One of those stories was my own. The flu sucked — just as any illness — does but I recovered in the appropriate amount of time and didn’t try to manually lower my fever, since I know what is a safe and what requires medical attention (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_ParentingResource/fever-children-good-thing-experts/story?id=13002114).

      Once again, I am NOT saying that no one should get the flu shot in the way that you would want it to be believed.

  • Brianna says:

    I will retract my statement’s about Jen’s credentials, as a few links later I finally managed to discover her position as a registered nurse.
    I still stand by that it should have been included in this article as she’s claiming her information to be supremely factual and a casual reader may not be so inclined to go through the many pages it took to find her connections to the medical field.

  • Brianna says:

    I’m curious to see Jen’s credentials for her to make such huge claims about what a flu vaccination can do. Perhaps she is a medical professional, perhaps not. But where, exactly, is this information about her in this article? She pretty much TELLS you that you need to get the shot with, of course, the “see your doctor” disclaimer towards the bottom without proving that she has the medical right to make such statements. Her tactics of describing her ICU experience (was she working there and saw all the charts from every patient?) and of all the ‘dying people’ is so laughable. She fails to recognize the facts FROM the CDC such as “the flu shot is only able to protect against certain strains of the flu, so if you come into contact with a strain that you are not protected from, then you will still get the flu.”
    So it’s a good thing that she didn’t get a strain of the flu from that apparent death ward that wasn’t included in her flu shot otherwise she would have… *gasp*… gotten the flu!
    The flu also thrives in hosts who have lower Vitamin D levels which is connection to less daylight hours and outside activity during the Fall/Winter months. Using food & vitamins to increase this and enjoying the sunshine whenever it is available will help your health at this time of the year. This is also safe advice for children as well, as a Cochrane Database Systematic Review of 51 studies involving 260,000 children age 6 to 23 months found no evidence that the flu vaccine is any more effective than a placebo.

    She says nothing about diet & exercise and cutting out immune suppressing foods like white sugar. ‘Wash your hands’, while an important suggestion, is not ALL it takes to keep your immune system strong and able to fight most of the diseases naturally. Also, finding a way to relieve daily stress and getting sound sleep is crucial to keep the body healthy and disease free. The body reacts a specific way to vaccines as opposed to contracting the disease naturally: in “Layman’s Terms” some of the body’s cells contain a memory of the disease and the immune system is able to quickly fight off the incoming disease without you even noticing or feeling symptomatic. When manually manufactured, the body does not respond in the same way and repeat shots are needed to maintain protection.
    Just as in the flu shot, it is possible to get the flu every year due to different strains but when you “catch the flu” the body is already prepped for fighting it off so your symptoms may not even be noticed.

    Am I saying that no one should get the flu shot? Of course not, that would be wholly irresponsible in the same fashion as saying that everyone should get it. What I AM saying is that there is a whole lot more information that is NOT included in this article, and someone might read this thinking that her information is sound. I am also saying that you (the reader) need to examine what kind of life you lead & food you eat, as well as if you have any medicals reasons that cause immune suppression (prior diseases, medications, etc), to decide if the flu shot is a responsible choice for you and your family.

  • Jennifer says:

    I did not get the flu shot when I was pregnant with Bud. Sickest I’ve ever been in my life. My legs were so sore, for days, that I could barely walk.

  • We all got our flu shots over here!

    And by the way, didn’t Jen write this article and not Gigi? I am confused.

  • Cindee says:

    I get a flu shot every year it amazes me that people think they can get flu from shot. We have a mix of family always around protect them and yourself everyone.

  • Rebecca says:

    and also, a little virus called labrynthitis likes to follow the flu. it sucks as much as the flu and can linger forever. i’m still dizzy more than 3 years later. it has something to do with swelling in the deep inner ear and it messes up the marbles. slang term=marbles.

  • Penelope says:

    Thanks! I had an allergic reaction to the flu shot 2 years ago & can’t take it. Last year I got the flu and gave it to my household. Miserable! This year, DH has already taken his and the boys are scheduled for theirs. At least we can prevent others in our home from it.

  • Thank you for all of this information! Reminds me that my little ones need their flu shots…and me too! Moms gotta take care of themselves first to be able and healthy enough to take care of our families…

  • Ginny Marie says:

    Just another reminder that I need to get myself and my girls to the doctor to get our flu shots! This year, I’m concerned that a family close to us is going the “natural” route. The mom told me she decided not to have her family get flu shots and instead stay healthy with diet. I’m not sure how to respond to my friend; she has three young kids and one on the way.

    • Jen says:

      This is always really hard for me and I struggle with how to respond. What I usually say when people say something like this too me is, “make sure that you have researched this thoroughly, talk to your doctor and know the risks.”

      It is a person’s right to not get a flu shot but know that you could be playing with your life and the lives of your family.