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  • Writer's pictureMadison Reid

What Do You Actually Know About the Flu? Everything You Should Have Learned About the Flu in School

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

What Is the Flu, How Do Viruses Work, and How to Avoid the Flu!


Uh-oh. There it is again. That tickle in the back of your throat… the congestion building in your nose. You hope for a cold — PLEASE be a cold. Then come the chills. And your worst fears are realized. There’s no escaping it now, you’ve got:


Graphic of Woman Running from Shadow Monster

Everybody run for your lives! Just kidding — this isn’t the Coronavirus (COVID-19). You may be thinking — get to the good part, I just want to know how to avoid the flu like the plague! To skip ahead to some stellar science-backed tips, read through my personally selected top 10 ways to avoid the flu.

The seasonal passing of the flu is so normal for us, sometimes we forget how many people it affects. The CDC expects Influenza to cause 20,000 to 55,000 deaths this flu season, and kills tens of thousands every year.

We all know our pal the flu. He prefers being the surprise guest at your Christmas dinner get-together, enjoying the party before he dips out with one of your unsuspecting guests and hits the next. What a sneaky little devil…

You know this uninvited guest well. You’ve probably unwillingly hosted him (pun intended). He hits faster and harder than a cold and leaves you reeling. The CDC lists the usual symptoms:

  • Super inviting coughs.

  • Your throat hurts — Your new norm is croaking.

  • The snot just keeps on coming…how much more could there be?

  • Or, your nose is so stuffy it feels like a brick attached to your face.

  • Your muscles and body ache like you finished a Triathlon.

  • Minor to pounding headaches, not unlike morning-afters in your 20s.

  • Unreasonable fatigue that makes your bed look so dreamy…

  • Possible vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults.)

  • Possible fever or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone experiences a fever!)


What Do You Really Know About The Flu?

I realized I knew very little. With the goal of ‘knowledge is power’ driving me forward, I dove into breaking down the fundamentals.

Young woman reading atop piles of old books

What is The Flu?

The flu is a virus called Influenza and has four main types: A, B, C, and D. Influenza D affects mostly cattle, and C tends to have very mild effects on us. During flu season, we’re usually in the ring with Influenza A and Influenza B.¹

“But Maddie — if there’s only four strains, and only TWO can hurt us, why do we need the flu shot every year? IS IT ALL A GIANT SCAM? YOU CAN’T TRUST ANYONE ANYMORE!” Ok, hold your horses there — it’s not a scam. Influenza is a type of virus, and viruses are tricky and dynamic buggers. Bear with me, we’re going to get a little science-y.

Did you get the flu shot this year? Maybe the nasal spray? If you’re over the age of six and in general good health, the CDC recommends everyone get the flu vaccine every year. Each flu vaccine contains three or four carefully selected strains of influenza. Scientists spend hours studying these strains, choosing the ones they believe most dangerous for us the following year.

Scientists prepare the strains so they interact antigenically with your body. When something is antigenic, it means your body recognizes it as a foreign invader and takes immediate steps to kick it out. The flu shot prompts your body to prepare its warrior antibodies for action, doing so in about two weeks. This gives your body a headstart on recognizing those pesky viruses the next time they head your way.

But even with the hours of research spent pouring over numbers and statistics and probabilities — You still get sick. Curses!

There’s no foolproof way to avoid the flu. Influenza viruses have been evolving as long as we have and are dynamic. These slight changes in genetic structure make it harder for your body to recognize this new flu virus in relation to past foreign invaders it’s dealt with. Viruses go through two main types of transformation.²

Antigenic drifting: a process of small changes to the genetic structure of the viruses over time, producing slightly different strains. Our body doesn’t always recognize these variants and may need to double-check to make sure it’s an enemy invader.

Antigenic shifts: The scarier of the two. These make large jumps in their genetic structure, like when a virus makes the leap between animals and people. (Remember the Swine Flu Epidemic?) These viruses are COMPLETELY alien to our systems which work in overdrive to identify and banish these new and improved hijackers.


It’s hard to picture these tiny nefarious parasites…

Cute Cartoon Devil with Pitchfork

When you take a look under the electron microscope at Influenza, you see a tiny spiked sphere called a virion. Imagine a softball with little craters all over it and alien palm trees spaced evenly all around its surface. Scientists might disagree with my super-technical description, but it reminds me of a Twilight Zone version of Whoville… Tell me I’m wrong! Here’s what’s you need to know about the structure:

  1. The softball is an added envelope of fatty acids. It gives the virus extra protection in cold weather.

  2. Inside this protective softball, there is a protein layer (the capsid) with bits of RNA and DNA inside itching to replicate and spread.

This video by NPR offers a great visual for how viruses attack the body.

If you haven’t already fainted from the scientific gobble-dee-gook flying all over the room, let’s see what this really looks like…

You’re in line at the grocery store. The guy in front of you moves along, you pay for your groceries with the swipe of a card and tap of a few keys before you head out.

You didn’t notice seconds earlier that guy in front of you muffling a *cough-cough* into his hand and then paying for his groceries using WHAT? The pin keys on the card machine. But you don’t know that. You look at the clock nervously and pinch the bridge of your nose in frustration.

What were you thinking about? It doesn’t matter. Your next headache is about to be the flu.

You take a breath and the tiny liquid droplets of virions make their way from your fingertips into your airways. The Influenza virus is incredibly small — it’s size is just 0.0008 that of the width of a human hair — easy to inhale in a split second.

As it travels through your airways, the virus searches for a host cell. Once found, the cell pulls the virus inside. The virus’s protective shell degrades and the RNA begins replicating. After replicating, millions of copies of the virus search for their own cells to repeat the process.

Fortunately for us, our bodies almost simultaneously send their best soldiers to confront and destroy the enemy. So while the virus multiplies at lightning speed, our soldiers interferons and cytokines chase down every last particle.

Fun Fact! Did you know that the symptoms you feel with the flu actually comes from your body’s healing process? Your body fights hard against intruders — it’s the battle that takes a toll on you, rather than the flu virus.


So How Long Does the Flu Last?

Your body found the virions and started healing you up, possibly before you knew you were sick! After all, it can take one to four days before you notice any symptoms. Not so lucky for all your friends and family — you can be contagious up to one day before symptoms show up, and five to seven days after symptoms cease.

Comic Book Style Woman Sneezing

You Could Infect Everyone Within 6 Feet Without Even Knowing You’re Sick!

The complete itinerary of your dream vacation with the flu looks like this:

  1. You breathe in or ingest virus particles [1–4 days before you feel symptoms]

  2. You turn into a virus-radiating monster [1 day before symptom onset] *Kidding, we still love you! From over here though…*

  3. You begin experiencing symptoms [5–7 days] *Heads-up — you are most contagious during the first 3–4 days!*

  4. 5–7 days later no more symptoms, but still contagious [5–7 days post-symptoms]

This means you might feel sick for up to a week but could be contagious for about two weeks!³


How does the flu spread?

Warning for those squeamish about germs — things get rocky ahead. You usually catch the flu by inhaling the particles left hanging in the air from someone else’s cough or sneeze.

One sneeze can contain 100,000 germ particles and hangs in the air for a few hours. If you’re within six feet of one of these invisible waves of bullets, you may breathe in a number of virus droplets. In close quarters with lots of people, the virus travels swiftly — the moisture in the air helps the virus remain intact and the closeness helps it spread.

Lack of hygiene, increased travel, and close-quarters all supported the increased brutality of the Influenza Outbreak of 1918, leading to the deaths of 50 million people. The swine flu of 2009 killed 203,000 people.

This is why it is important to use social distancing during an epidemic so you don’t unknowingly spread the virus to vulnerable groups of people.

You can also get infected by touching some of the droplets left on surfaces and touching your face, but this is less common.

Before You Scrub Down Every Surface…

Annoyed Woman with Cleaning Supplies

Generally, Influenza viruses dissipate from the air in a few hours and surfaces within 24 hours.

More specifically, a recent study conducted by Dr. Jane Greatoreax at Public Health England found that Influenza A only survives four hours on porous materials (clothes, toys, and fabrics) and nine hours on non-porous materials (metals and plastics).

So put down the Clorox Wipes! If you do clean anything, consider the objects used most often and communally — the virus lasted longest on materials like those in light switches and computer keyboards.


How to Avoid the Flu.

While no one has found a 100% way to prevent the flu from finding you, there are several ways you can take care to protect yourself and your family.

The biggest tip? WASH YOUR HANDS. This means rub, scrub, and lather with soap — imagine you’re giving yourself an amazing hand-massage. Let yourself get lost in the experience, lose track of time! You need 20 seconds of hard scrubbing to make sure you’ve kicked out all viruses and bacteria. Hand Sanitizer is good but less effective than a good old fashioned scrub.

When you’re sick with the flu, why leave your bed? Follow that instinct — practice social distancing by staying inside and away from vulnerable groups. Just look at it like much needed time you’re forced to dedicate to long-overdue TLC and self-care. Treat yourself with an Epsom salt bath, diffuse some essential oils. You might be forced to stay home, but no reason you can’t turn your enforced containment into a spa getaway.

The best advice? Take care of yourself — stay hydrated, eat well, maybe do some yoga at home to get your body moving. Do what feels right for you. If the symptoms persist or get worse, go and see your doctor. It’s better to go early and find out you don’t have the flu than to stay home and suffer.

For more personally collected tips and tricks to stay healthy, check out 10 NO-NONSENSE Strategies to Avoid the Flu Like a Pro.


What’s your experience with the flu? Tens of thousands of people die from the flu every year. Should we be giving more attention to preventing the flu like we’re doing with COVID-19? Share this with anyone you think could stand to learn a thing or two about the flu, and comment with your thoughts and tips below!

*originally published on Medium March 15, 2020.

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