The news has recently been talking about influenza and outbreaks left and right. Here in Iowa, the news has reported an increased number of flu-related deaths that has left this Mom worrying. While the reported deaths have been elderly patients, I know that the flu can be rough on children, elderly, and those with underlying conditions.
It is easy for some to shrug off symptoms but it is crucial to know the first signs so you can take action. We have dealt with influenza in previous years and one of the first symptoms to always hit is a high fever before any other symptoms.
Flu-The Scientific Breakdown
For one to completely understand how the flu behaves, they must develop a basic understanding of the difference between a bacterium and a virus. They are both tiny germs capable of invading the human body. Because of their genetic makeup, they are capable of creating different symptoms in response to the way the body reacts to them. Some of the symptoms they create are caused by changes they make to the body on a cellular level.
Over the last 50 years, scientists have developed a thorough system to fight the growth of bacteria by developing antibiotics. It was originally thought that antibiotics would have an effect on viral infections. However, research has shown that taking antibiotics while one is infected by a virus could be deeply detrimental to their health. They not only fail to treat the viral infection, but they also increase the risk of developing a secondary bacterial infection. (1, 2)
The flu is a viral illness that is contracted from contact with a person who is infected, or by coming into contact with unwashed, infected surfaces. After the virus moves into the body, it lives in the back of the throat. Here, it multiples until it reaches a viral load where it can successfully affect its host.
You may notice that the way the virus is transmitted, and its associated mechanisms are similar to those of the common cold. While this may be true, the flu is not the same as a cold, not even on a genetic level. They originate from completely separate viruses, and they mutate in very different rates and methods.
It is true that the common cold and the flu share many of the same symptoms. The common cold will cause an unpleasant, but mild set of symptoms. The flu, on the other hand, causes more severe symptoms and is more likely to cause serious, possibly life threatening complications.
What Class of Virus is The Flu?
The flu is categorized as a contagious viral illness affecting the respiratory system. Depending on the strain of the virus, and the immune system of its host, it will cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe. At times, the severe effects it can have on the human body can be fatal, especially if it is not treated by qualified medical professionals.
Because of the potential for developing severe, life-threatening complications, the CDC recommends that people take charge of their own health care and take the right steps to prevent contracting the flu virus. Prevention can be as simple as deciding if you will get a flu shot every year and following proper health and safety precautions, like washing your hands after touching things, or eating.
Statistics show that between 5% and 20% of the American population contract the flu each year. Unfortunately, out of the people who do not receive the vaccine on an annual basis, 360 people die from flu related complications, or the severity of their symptoms. To make this statistic even more sad, the majority of the fatalities are in children, elderly, and those who are immune compromised. The subsection of the immune compromised population most affected are asthmatics, diabetics, and people with heart disease. (3)
Fortunately, scientists are constantly looking for ways to better map out the methods in which the flu transmits from one person to another, and the way the virus grows once it does enter the body. Because of their breakthroughs, they are able to provide new information to the public constantly by utilizing the media. Recently, scientific goals have been focused on natural products people can successfully use to prevent contracting the flu, and treat the virus once they have developed symptoms.
What Symptoms Are Experienced with the Flu?
People who do contract the flu will suffer from unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms can range from high fevers, chills, muscle aches and pains, sore throat, runny and stuffy nose, fatigue, and a dry cough. While these are the most common symptoms, others may experience additional symptoms, like stomach aches, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and even diarrhea. While these additional symptoms are possible in any case, they are more likely to manifest in children than in adults.
People who suffer from a severe case of the flu may experience more severe symptoms. They may develop bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, painful ear infections, and possible dehydration. These bacterial invasions are typically caused by a weakened immune system trying to fight off the virus, and accidentally allowing bacteria to infiltrate the body.
Where Did the Flu Get Its Name?
The flu received its name as an abbreviation of the virus causing the illness, influenza. The flu is actually a group of respiratory diseases caused by infection by the influenza A. or influenza B. viruses. Both viruses are more active in the winter months, and in the cooler, early part of spring. This pattern has been mapped out scientifically, which makes it easier for medical providers to organize prevention and treatment methods for individuals, and groups of individuals.
This scientific research has also pinned down various methods people unknowingly reduce their risk of contracting the virus. For example, people who spend more time outside and eat a diet that allows them to take in high amounts of vitamin D directly from being exposed to sunshine during the winter and early spring, have a much lower risk for contracting the flu virus in the event they are exposed to it. (4, 5, 6)
How to Know If You Have the Flu
The common cold and the flu virus usually cycle around communities at the same time. The symptoms of both viruses can be very similar, but the symptoms experienced with the flu are a lot worse than the common cold can cause. The common cold will drag you down and make you miserable. The flu will make you miserable to the point where you cannot even drag yourself out of bed.
To date, science has tracked down more than one-hundred strains of the cold virus. Most of these viruses do not mutate past their original form, so the strains are easy to track. The flu virus is much more difficult to track down because new strains evolve every couple of years, which makes vaccinating difficult.
Because the strains of flu virus change every few years vaccines must change with them. Developing these vaccines can be extremely difficult because scientists are not able to anticipate exactly what genetic mutations will take place with the flu virus. Because of this, all vaccines are developed using live samples from the previous year’s flu outbreak, which leaves people open to developing a mild case of the virus, even if they have been vaccinated.
How Does the Flu Virus Spread?
The flu virus spreads from one person to another through infected respiratory secretions. This means that any fluid originating in the mouth or nose could be infected during flu season. These secretions are typically released when someone sneezes or coughs without using the right precautions. Because the flu virus is easy to transmit from person to person, any surface these secretions come into contact with can be infected, and become an object of transmission.
Because the virus is easy to transmit, people who live in close quarters are at higher risk for contracting the virus. Classrooms, college dorms, hospitals, nursing homes, and office buildings are prime locations to get sick.
Something as simple as coughing into one’s hand, sneezing without covering their mouth and nose, or did not wash their hands before touching services can leave others at risk. Once the surface is infected, all a person must do is touch the surface and then touch near their mouth, near their nose, or anywhere on their face. Even if one touches a doorknob and later rubs their eyes, they are exposing themselves to a hearty dose of the virus.
After being exposed, the virus takes between 24-hours to four days to incubate before the person begins to show symptoms.
The flu virus typically lasts between one to two weeks. Treatment is symptom management and immune support. The majority of people who contract the flu find that their immune system is able to fight it off and heal their body without medical care. However, the body requires plenty of fluids, a lot of rest, medications for fever, and proper nutrition. One should never follow the old wife’s tale of “feed a cold, starve a fever” as it has no scientific basis. In order to properly heal, the body needs plenty of calories and an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals to fight off a virus.
(1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work
(2) MayoClinic.com: Antibiotics: Misuse Puts You and Others At Risk
(3) Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) and Flu Vaccine
(4) The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Randomized Trial of Vitamin D Supplementation to Prevent Seasonal Influenza A in Schoolchildren
(5) Mercola.com: The vitamin Which Can Cut Your Flu Risk Nearly in Half
(6) The Vitamin D Council: H1N1 Flu and Vitamin D