Physical Health

Seasonal Flu

What is Influenza (the flu)?

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory disease, affecting the nose, throat, and lungs. Humans are affected by 3 types of influenza viruses: influenza A, B and C. Type A is a constantly changing virus that can cause new seasonal epidemics, usually every winter in the US. Type B causes smaller outbreaks, and Type C usually causes mild illness. The flu is different from a cold. While both are caused by viruses, high fever, headaches and extreme exhaustion are much more common with the flu. The flu can also cause serious complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia for certain high-risk groups. The best way to prevent contracting influenza is by getting a flu vaccine annually.

Is it common?

Millions of people in the U.S. - about 8% of the population - will get the flu each year. Most people who get the flu will recover in 1 to 2 weeks, but some people can develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu. An average of about 20,000 people per year in the U.S. die from the flu, and 114,000 per year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza.

How is the influenza virus transmitted?

The flu is transmitted when a person who has the flu coughs, sneezes, or speaks and sends the flu virus into the air. When other people inhale the virus,the virus enters the nose, throat, or lungs and begins to multiply, causing flu symptoms. Less often, the flu may spread when a person touches a surface that has flu viruses on it, such as a doorknob, and then touches their nose or mouth.

What are the symptoms?

The flu usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Fatigue/Tiredness (can be extreme)

  • Dry cough

  • Sore throat

  • Nasal congestion

  • Body aches

  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms are usually referred to as "flu-like symptoms." In addition to the flu virus, several other respiratory viruses also can circulate during the flu season and can cause symptoms and illness similar to those seen with flu infection. These non-flu viruses include rhinovirus (one cause of the common cold) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

People of any age with chronic medical conditions, people over 65 years old and very young children are more likely to have complications from the flu. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections are three examples of complications from the flu. The flu can worsen chronic health problems. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may have worsening of this condition.

Is the flu contagious?

A person can spread the flu starting 1 day before they feel sick. Adults can continue to pass the flu virus to others for another 3 to 7 days after symptoms start. Children can pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people can still spread the virus to others. 

How is it diagnosed?

It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone. A test can confirm that an illness is influenza if the patient is tested within the first 2 to 3 days after symptoms begin. In addition, a medical provider's exam may be needed to determine whether a person has another infection that is a complication of the flu. 

How is it treated?

For mild flu in people who are not high risk (people who do not have chronic medical conditions, HIV, asthma or anemia), the following is the most common treatment:

  • Rest

  • Drink plenty of liquids

  • Avoid using alcohol and tobacco

  • Take pain medication (such as Advil or Tylenol) to relieve the symptoms of flu. Do NOT take aspirin because it can cause Reye syndrome, a rare but serious illness in teenagers and children.

Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics don't work to cure it. The best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine (flu shot) each fall, before flu season.

If the flu is diagnosed within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, several antiviral medications are available for people in high-risk groups. These medications may shorten the duration of symptoms by approximately 1 day. They must be prescribed by a medical provider and may have side effects.

What do I do if I am sick?

1. Register with Brown’s “FluWeb” for assistance with your health care and missed classes. This online system allows you to report your illness and receive support from the deans in Student Life and the College. Please do not attend class if you have a fever of 100-degrees Fahrenheit or higher with a cough and/or sore throat.

2. Call Health Services (401.863-1330) or EMS for care.

Call EMS (Emergency Medical Services)at 401.863-4111 if you have (or your roommate/friend has):

  • Pain in your chest;

  • Difficulty breathing;

  • Confusion or decreased awareness.

Call Health Services at 401.863-1330 IMMEDIATELY if you have:

  • Severe headache;

  • Rash;

  • Stiff neck.

Call Health Services at 401.863-1330 TODAY if you:

  • Were feeling better for 24 hours but now feel ill again (especially if you currently have fever or cough);

  • Have bloody or rust-colored mucus;

  • Have severe sore throat;

  • Are unable to keep fluids down (i.e., you are vomiting back up anything you drink);

  • Have any other condition that concerns you;

  • Have a chronic medical condition, or are pregnant or nursing, and have not already talked with a University Health Services provider. (Chronic medical conditions include significant asthma or other respiratory illness, significant chronic cardiovascular, liver, blood, neurologic disease or diabetes, HIV, or taking immunosuppressive drugs).

3. Limit contact with others

  • Keep away from others as much as possible until you have had no fever for 24 hours (without fever reducing medication). 

  • Cover your cough and clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer often and especially after coughing or sneezing.

  • Ask those in your household/suite/room to wash their hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing.

  • Protect others by having no (or limited) visitors. Practice good hygiene and cough etiquette, and use separate towels and eating utensils

  • Ask others to also follow these guidelines.

3. Treat your symptoms

  • Fever: Fever is the most common symptom of the flu. To treat your fever, keep your room as cool as possible, wear light weight clothing, drink plenty of fluids, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen per label instructions. Do not take aspirin.

  • Cough: a dry cough is a cough that does not bring up much mucus. Drink lots of clear liquids.  Rest, soothe your throat with salt water gargles (½ teaspoon salt in 8 ounces of warm water) or cough lozenges. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes. 

  • Body aches/headaches:  Acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help relieve body aches and/or headaches.  Follow label directions.

  • Avoid dehydration: To prevent this, drink plenty of fluids.  Suggestions include water, broth, diluted fruit juices or Powerade, vegetable juices, decaffeinated tea, hot water with honey and lemon, Jello or popsicles.

What about the "stomach flu?"

Many people use the term "stomach flu" to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea that are not caused by the flu virus, but can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria, or even parasites. However, while vomiting, diarrhea, and being "sick to your stomach" can sometimes be related to the flu - particularly in children - these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease. Learn more about the stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis) here. 

When is the flu season in the U.S.?

In the U.S., the peak of flu season can occur anywhere from late December through March. 

Who should get a flu shot?

Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems from flu can happen at any age. We usually recommend that college students get a flu shot because viruses are easily spread in residence halls and other typical college settings. Other groups that should be vaccinated include:

  • People who are pregnant

  • People with significant asthma or other respiratory illness

  • People with significant chronic cardiovascular, liver, blood, neurologic disease

  • Those who have diabetes, HIV, or are taking immunosuppressive drugs 

Who should NOT get a flu shot?

The following groups should not get a flu shot before talking with their doctor:

  • People who have a severe allergy to eggs, thimerosal (a medication preservative), or any other vaccine ingredients

  • People who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past

  • People who previously developed Guillain-Barre syndrome (a disease which causes nerve damage) in the 6 weeks after getting a flu shot

  • If you are sick, have an acute respiratory infection or have a fever, you should delay getting the flu shot until your symptoms are gone 

Can I get a flu shot at Brown?

Yes. Health Services provides flu shots for all Brown students. Each fall, we do a series of flu shot clinics on campus which are widely advertised. The flu vaccine continues to be offered at Health Services through the fall and winter season. If you have any questions, you can call Nursing at 401.863-1330 or email [email protected]

Related Links

Centers for Disease Control 
The majority of the information on this page is taken from this site.

This site has several articles on influenza, including the latest news, general overviews and diagrams.

  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111