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What Is The Flu?

The flu, also called the seasonal influenza, is that illness which seems to come around the world every winter and make thousands of people miserable. Symptoms can include coughing, congestion, headaches, body aches, sore throat, sneezing, chills, lack of energy, and fever.

Some years the flu virus is mild, and some years it is serious, even deadly. Flu shots are often available to the public each year, but not everyone takes advantage of this protection. One of the problem with these flu vaccines is that they must be prepared months in advance, and researchers cannot know exactly which strain or strains of the flu will arrive. However, such shots can lessen the severity of the influenza symptoms, or sometimes prevent them.

What exactly is this illness? The word “flu” itself is a shortening of the Italian word “influenza,” which is based on the Medieval Latin “influentia.” Both words mean “influence,” based on the superstitious belief that flu epidemics and pandemics were based on the influence of the stars. It is also known as the flu bug or the grippe. There are specialized strains of the flu, notably the Bird Flu and the Swine Flu. This article focuses on the annual seasonal flu.


Photograph of Hong Kong flu virus magnified 100,000 times.

Picture of flu virus magnified 100,000 times.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), annual U.S. averages for influenza indicate that 5% to 20% of the population will get the flu; more than 200,000 people will be hospitalized from flu-related complications; and about 36,000 people will die from flu-related causes. If the virus spreads quickly, it causes a flu epidemic or even a pandemic.

One dictionary defines this serious illness as “an acute and infectious disease of the respiratory system caused by a virus and characterized by fever, muscle pain, headache, and inflammation of the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract.” We can analyze this definition to determine what the seasonal flu really is. Some people incorrectly refer to other brief, intense illnesses as flu, such as the stomach flu (e.g., food poisoning, diarrhea, etc.) or the chest flu (the common cold, bronchitis, etc.).


The symptoms of influenza include headache, body ache, fever, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and sometimes gastric distress, among others.

The seasonal flu causes many symptoms.

Home remedies for flu include common-sense precautions such as staying away from healthy people while you are contagious; staying away from sick people while you are healthy; getting plenty of rest; drinking lots of fluids; over-the-counter remedies for aches, coughing, and sneezing; frequent handwashing; not touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and getting a flu vaccination. Consult a doctor immediately if extreme symptoms are experienced, such as abnormally high fevers or difficulty breathing.

“Acute” means brief and severe.

“Infectious disease” is an illness caused by microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) which enter the body and grow and multiply there. It also means that such a disease can pass from person to person by touch, inhalation, bodily fluids, etc.


Sneezing can spread the flu virus to other people.

Sneezing is a symptom of influenza, which can spread the virus.

“Respiratory system” means the parts of the body responsible for breathing, specifically the intake of oxygen, and includes the nasal passages, pharynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs.

“Virus” means “poison” in Latin. It is a very tiny organism, visible only through a special microscope, that consists of DNA (genetic) material surrounded by a protein shell or coat. Viruses are known as the most primitive form of life. Viral organisms cannot reproduce on their own, needing a living host in order to multiply inside its cells. The common cold virus is another example.

“Fever” means an abnormally high body temperature. This is an effect of the body’s attempt to fight the flu bugs.


“Muscle pain and headache” are self explanatory.

“Inflammation” refers to the reaction of tissues to infection resulting by redness, pain, and swelling.

“Mucous membrane” means a lubricating membrane which lines an organ or other internal surface.

“Respiratory tract” is the path that air follows from the nose and mouth into the lungs. The nose, throat, nasal passages, trachea, and bronchial tubes are lined with mucous membranes.


Picture of a man receiving a flu vaccination.

A flu shot can prevent or lessen the severity of seasonal influenza.

Now let’s put it all together. In the dictionary sense, the flu is a brief but severe contagious illness transmitted by tiny infectious organisms spreading from person to person, which invade and multiply in the cells of the respiratory tract system, causing inflammation of the mucous membranes, resulting in fever, chills, headaches, muscle pains, body aches, coughing, sneezing, lethargy, and otherwise difficulty in breathing. For such a tiny word, flu can cause large health problems.

Copyright 2009 by Doug Smith. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Unauthorized Duplication Prohibited.

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