Is "flu" the only disease usually accompanied with "the"? From what I understand, you don't usually use "the" with diseases / illnesses / disorders ("have Alzheimer's / diarrhea / claustrophobia / dyslexia, etc." not "have the..."), but it's perfectly normal to say "have the flu". Is the flu the only exception?

Edit (this is only a side part, and can be glossed over if you will, so it's not a duplicate imo): What's so significant about the flu that other conditions don't have, so that it's entitled to "the"?

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    Possible duplicate of a cold vs flu / the flu Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 16:32
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    People used to die from the plague at least as often as they died from plague. And somewhat more recently (when I was a kid back in the 50s) it was perfectly natural to say someone had caught the measles. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 16:38
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    @FumbleFingers Not a duplicate. That one asks why 'the flu' instead of just 'flu', this asks any others like 'the flu'
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:20
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    It's not uncommon for someone with gout to call it "the gout."
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 5:10
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    There is also Spike Milligan's 'the dreaded lurgi'.
    – user207421
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 17:34

5 Answers 5



Using the definite article before names of ailments was more common historically than today. Even so, people still say the measles and the mumps about as often as they say the flu, and you sometimes come upon others like the gout, the cancer, and the rheumatism, especially in dialogue meant to represent older or more rustic speech.

The OED records that this “ᴛʜᴇ-disease” version began over a thousand years ago, and notes that both styles coëxist today. A secondary and sometimes more humorous subsense has since arisen in expressions like the blues, the creeps, and the jitters.

The Historical Record

Once upon a time, one used to speak of the influenza, so it is only natural that this would have become shortened up to the flu.

Many diseases were once commonly used with the definite article preceding their names in English over the past thousand years. Some still get talked about that way, often with both styles existing side by side in Present Day English. Jump to the section Free Samples, Often Funny towards the end of this post for copious examples of these, some with links.

The OED talks about this particular use of the article the in its two related subsenses for sense 8, the one technical and the other risible, with the text set in bold my own markup:

8a. With the names of diseases, ailments, etc.
       Still in common use side by side with forms without the definite article.

8b. With colloq. or humorous names of afflictions, as the blues, collywobbles, creeps, D.T.’s, habdabs, heebie-jeebies, jitters, etc., q.v. Hence in analogous nonce-expressions.

The earliest citation provided is from Old English in 1000 ᴀ.ᴅ.; later citations include the cold, the croup, the fever, the stone, the German measles. So influenza is hardly unique.

In scientific journals you will see often see diseases referred to as the X virus, such as with influenza or smallpox or rubella, but when you drop the “virus” part, you also now normally drop the article.

But first before we talk about where we are now, let’s remember where we came from by looking at some of what Mitch would call arthrous uses. That is, those with the article before them.

That Was Then

So using the in front of diseases, ailments, and other assorted afflictions used to be perfectly normal. For example, in Volume 1 of The Baltimore Medical and Philosophical Lycæum from 1811 we find this reference:

I mention this more particularly, because in the influenza of 1790, Dr. Rush remarks that in several cases blood-letting produced alarming results.

And in The Obstetrical Journal of Great Britain and Ireland of 1875 we find this:

  • [...] because the croup and the measles appeared at the same time: [...]

And in Famine in Tudor and Stuart England published in 1975 we find a reprint from an account originally from a couple centuries earlier reading:

  • At times these and other afflictions came and also the bloody flux which put people in such a plight that countless died of it.

And here from 1831 in The Journal of Health with both the catarrh and the influenza as was then the common use:

  • In proffering a few remarks on the epidemic catarrh, or the influenza, which has of late prevailed over so great an extent of country, [...]

This Is Now

When the Black Death scourged Europe, it was commonly called the Great Plague or the awful pest, with the latter giving rise to the organism we now know to have caused it, Yersinia pestis.

Today you would be more likely to hear someone talk about plague than to hear them talk about the plague. From the plague-inpested prairie-dog towns of my backyard in Boulder County, Colorado comes this warning:

  • Plague is a bacterial disease transmitted by the fleas of rodents and is widespread in the western United States. Plague commonly infects prairie dogs and squirrels that can be found in parks and residential areas within Boulder County. Household pets, such as dogs and especially cats, can either get plague or carry infected fleas home to their owners.

This sounds perfectly natural here:

What killed off the prairie dog colony? Did they poison them?

No, it was the plague again.

Free Samples, Often Funny

The secondary, “humorous” use of the that the OED mentions is now commonly associated with references to the sufferer’s symptoms, such as in many of these:

Some of those come off as perfectly normal casual expressions, while others are mildly archaizing—a bit quaint as Janus mentions.


Saying the flu is a holdover from older styles of talking about illnesses and other physical troubles; people used to get the influenza. This practice was more common formerly than in Present Day English, where the habit—but not the rule—is to drop the article for most of these.

The casual terms amongst those listed above do seem to retain their article more than the official disease names. These euphemisms may be more noticeable in some regions an registers than in others.


Credit to Janus for suggesting the article usage might sometimes come off as a bit precious, and to Alan for suggesting the OED reference. Credit to Mitch for arthrous.

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    (West-coast) American English speaker here: Most of these are unacceptable to me. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 16:58
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    @errantlinguist I can hardly blame you: I wouldn’t want them either.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:01
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    Often these express symptoms of a disease and are more informal than the normal names for them. The only ones that I think aren't related to symptoms are the flu and the plague. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:06
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    Of these, the only ones that are diseases that are still referred to arthrously are: the flu, the plague, and the clap. All the others I would naturally say with out the definite article, are symptoms, or archaic (which may or may not be anarthrous: the shits, but hives)
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:24
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    @Mitch wow, really? As an AmE speaker, to me the mumps, the measles, and many others are most natural with the article. The OED mentions that "With names of diseases, ailments, etc. [the is] [s]till in common use side by side with forms without the definite article" Usage changes over time, and the OED gives instances of the influenza. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 18:07

There's also the bends (decompression sickness), the pock (smallpox).

It seems that informal names of diseases can take the.


When you use influenza, the the is not broadly used compared with flu.

Ngram Viewer: catch influenza vs catch the influenza / caught influenza vs caught the influenza / suffer from influenza, suffer from the influenza and caught the flu vs caught flu / catch the flu vs catch flu

Other diseases that use the definite article:

  • the blues: a feeling of sadness or depression


  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:44

Etymology can help comprehend the use of the article.

As a label, "the flu" is short for "the influence" (only now we know it's viral, not by the stars):

Merriam-Webster, on the origin and etymology of "influenza":

"Italian, literally, influence, from Medieval Latin influentia; from the belief that epidemics were due to the influence of the stars".

Outside the context of illness, "influence" is a common noun of potentially desirable effects as well,

"the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command",

There would not be so much of this potential for "plaguing"; the label is the plague, for it is specifically the bubonic ("bubonic" being an adjective).

Further, we might say "symptoms of the/ this flu", in comparative contexts; we yet mostly say "symptoms of flu", without the definite article, as per this Google search.

Description of symptoms usually comes after the ailment has been labeled.


You could also say someone has the black plague (which still exists today, in rare cases).

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:00
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    @BladorthinTheGrey - yes, it does. The question was whether any disease other than Influenza is commonly used with the definite article; this answer provides an example of another disease where it is used, thus showing that "the flu" is not the only such disease.
    – Jules
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 2:03
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    It does provide an answer to the question, but it would be vastly improved by adding a citation demonstrating that the black plague is indeed used. After all, a bald statement that "you could say someone has the alopecia" is not incorrect -- even though the alopecia would be. [Pun not intended!]
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 10:25

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