What it is: a virus. In nonscientific terms, it gets into your lungs and totally messes stuff up, which is not cool. The "stomach flu" is not really the flu, but is horrible nonetheless.
Symptoms: cough, fever, congestion, decreased will to move or stand, increased resentment of healthy people.
How to prevent the flu: There are several methods to avoid contracting the flu. The first is to get an annual flu shot, which can usually protect against more than 80 percent of the flu for any one year. Of course, they have to guess which viruses will show up, and some years they get it totally wrong, like this year. This year the vaccine only works about 40 percent of the time, which is pretty terrible as far as vaccines go. Thanks a lot, science.
If you don't like needles, or you're allergic to eggs, or you believe that crap about vaccines causing autism or autoimmune disease (please, please don't, I'm begging you), there are other things to try. One simple and effective method is to stock up on food and water, lock your roommate out of your room, and caulk up the door until summer rolls around. This way you'll avoid any and all human contact, plus you'll get a cool reputation as a completely crazy person and you won't have to do homework. Downsides: you will fail all your classes, you won't be able to shower for a few months, you'll have to figure out a bathroom somehow, and you'll have to invent an imaginary friend to stay sane. Your relationship with your roommate will probably suffer, too.
What I've always done instead of becoming a hermit is to drink tea by the quart when I feel myself getting sick. The whiter the tea, the more antioxidants, and the healthier it is, so white tea is the best, followed by green. It might be a total placebo effect, but if you really believe it, it'll work, just like any folk remedy you truly believe in (like voodoo dolls, or onion tea).
However, all of this is moot if you, like me, get cocky. Until a week ago, I was pretty much the only person on campus without the flu, so when the opportunity to write an article on it came up, I was all excited. I figured I could write it from the perspective of the one healthy person, feigning sympathy but secretly delighted with myself and the power of my tea-by-the-gallon strategy. Of course, within a few days of taking the article, couldn't laugh without collapsing into a horrible coughing fit that made me sound like a 98-year-old heavy smoker. A couple days after that, I contracted just about the worst short-term stomach virus in the world, and my ironic downfall was complete. Lesson: never say "I don't have the flu," because you immediately will, and then some.
But, if all of this advice should fail and you do get the flu, the best possible remedy is to simply lay on someone else's futon and loudly complain to everyone around you about how terrible you feel. With practice, you can perfect a tone of voice so wretched, so pitiful, that people will simply have to get you whatever you ask for, or at least pay attention to you. If they refuse, threaten to die on their futon or cough on their possessions.
And speaking of coughing on possessions, your last option is to boldly throw caution and decency to the winds and become a Typhoid Mary (or Flu Sue), with the goal of infecting as many other people as possible. This is best accomplished by not staying home from any of your classes, coughing into your hands, and going to Froggy's on Thursdays so that you can be in extremely close proximity to as many people as possible. For bonus points, drink out of everyone else's cups. You won't be popular, but at least you'll have plenty of sick company.
So best of luck to you, St. Olaf students, as you do battle with this most common and irritating of diseases. I hope this advice helps, except for the parts where I was making stuff up. Say it with me, now -- screw you, flu. I promise that's the last time I'll use a stupid rhyme in this article.