The Flu: Symptoms, Shots, & Treatment

What is the flu?

The flu, the common name for influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus. Viruses are the smallest form of life. Unlike bacteria, viruses can only reproduce in the living cells that they infect. Influenza causes nationwide epidemics every year. It is expected that 20-25,000 Americans will die from the flu each winter; another 100,000 will be hospitalized. Children, the elderly, and people with lung disease or other chronic conditions have a higher risk of complications from the flu. There are three different types of influenza viruses: type A, B, and C. Type A can infect other animals as well as humans. Types B and C infect only humans. Influenza C virus does not cause epidemics and only causes a very mild illness.

What are the signs and symptoms of the flu?

The flu is characterized by the sudden onset of a high fever (generally over 102 degrees F.; in children it may be over 104 degrees F.), a sore throat or cough, headache, chills, muscle aches, eye pain, lack of energy and possibly a runny nose. Symptoms generally last 3-5 days, but the cough and lack of energy can continue for up to two weeks. Vomiting or diarrhea are unusual in adults, but may be seen in children less than 6 years of age. The term “stomach flu” is a misnomer often used to describe gastrointestinal illnesses caused by organisms other than influenza viruses.

How do I know if I have the flu and not just a cold?

Colds are also upper respiratory infections caused by viruses and share many of the same symptoms as influenza. The flu, however, is a much more severe illness. The sudden onset of the symptoms (people often say they can “feel a cold coming on”) and the season are generally the hallmarks of the flu. The flu is generally contracted during “flu season” because the influenza viruses grow much better in cold weather. Decreased sunlight may also play a part. In the Northern hemisphere, the first outbreaks generally occur in October and may continue through April with the peak months being November through January. If you see a doctor, she or he may take a throat culture or blood test in order to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

How can I keep from getting the flu?

The safest and most effective defense against the flu, or any other type of illness, is a strong immune system. A strong immune system makes antibodies that kill viruses. Rest, regular aerobic exercise, and good nutrition, including foods rich in Vitamin C, are important to maintaining a healthy immune system. Eating dark green vegetables, red and yellow fruits, and yogurt is helpful. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt may stimulate substances in the immune system that fight disease.

Nutritional supplements such as Colostrum and Cat’s Claw may help stimulate the immune system. Teaching yourself to relax can also activate your immune system. There is evidence that relaxation increases the amount of interleukins (leaders in the immune system’s response against cold and flu viruses) in the bloodstream.

Most cold and flu viruses are spread by direct contact, so hand washing is extremely important. Germs can live on surfaces such as doorknobs or telephones for hours or even days. If a sink is not available, rubbing your hands together very hard for a minute or so will help break up some germs.

Don’t cover sneezes or coughs with your hand. If you have access to a tissue use that and then immediately throw it away. If not, turn your head away from people or use your arm rather than your hands to cover your nose and mouth. Since flu viruses enter the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth, it is important not to touch your face. Consider using paper towels and disposable cups at least during flu season.

Drinking plenty of water helps to flush poisons from your system while keeping yourself hydrated. You can determine whether or not you are drinking enough fluids by the color of your urine. It should be close to clear. Deep yellow urine signals a need for more fluids.

Saunas seem to help prevent the flu possibly because inhaling air hotter than 80 degrees is too warm for the viruses to survive.

Breathing fresh air is also very important. During the winter month’s people stay indoors more often. The combination of the dry air from central heating and close contact with others makes you more vulnerable to flu viruses.

Don’t’ smoke and limit alcohol consumption. Smoking or even being around second-hand smoke zaps the immune system. Smoke dries out the nasal passages and paralyzes the cilia that line the nose and lungs. The cilia “sweep” viruses out the nasal passages. Experts contend that just one cigarette can paralyze the cilia for 30-40 minutes. Heavy alcohol use can destroy or greatly impair the liver. The liver is the body’s primary filtering system. If it becomes sluggish, germs will not leave the body as fast. Avoid alcohol. It dehydrates the body, and it actually takes more fluids from your system than it puts in.

What about flu shots?

Flu shots or vaccines become available every fall. Because viruses can change and mutate very quickly, a new vaccine must be formulated every spring based on information gathered by the flu surveillance network set up by the World Health Organization. A flu vaccine is actually a dose of the virus that has been chemically deactivated. Injecting the deactivated virus stimulates your body to produce antibodies that can be used against the virus should you later become exposed to it. In order to produce flu vaccines, droplets of the virus are injected into and grown in chicken eggs. Drug companies use millions of eggs every year in order to produce adequate quantities of the vaccine. Because the virus for the vaccine is grown in eggs, it is recommended that anyone allergic to eggs avoid the vaccine.

Unfortunately a flu shot does not guarantee that you will not get the flu. Vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year and from one person to another. Also, the influenza vaccine, like any other vaccine, is capable of causing side effects such as severe allergic reactions. The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site that may last up to two days.

Generally healthy adults and children do not need a yearly flu shot. However, vaccination is recommended for certain groups who are at increased risk for complications that may arise from influenza:

    • Persons 65 years of age or older.
    • Persons of any age who have chronic medical conditions, including asthma.
    • Residents and employees of nursing homes or chronic-care facilities.
    • Children and teenagers who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy.
    • Women in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during flu season.
    • Persons with weakened immune systems due to conditions such as cancer or HIV.
    • Health care workers and family members of high-risk patients.

How can I treat the flu?

Often the best treatment for the flu is not to treat it at all. For generally healthy people, the body’s natural healing processes will work to combat the virus. The symptoms of colds and flu are part of the natural healing process. For example, a fever is the body’s way of trying to kill viruses by creating a hotter than normal environment. The hotter environment makes germ-killing proteins in the blood circulate more quickly and effectively. If you are able to endure a moderate fever for a day or two, you may actually get well faster. You can help the body direct its energy toward the immune battle by staying warm and resting under a blanket. Fever causes you to lose a lot of fluids, so drinking plenty of water is extremely important.

If you do not feel like eating, juices, broth, electrolyte solutions, and tea are good choices. Black and green teas contain catechins, phytochemicals purported to have natural antibiotic effects. If you do feel like eating, some good infection-fighting foods are: bananas (soothe upset stomach), bell peppers (vitamin C), blueberries (high in natural aspirin), carrots (beta-carotene), chili peppers (opens sinuses and helps breakup mucus), cranberries (helps prevent bacteria from sticking to cell lining in the urinary tract), mustard and horseradish (helps break up mucus), onion (phytochemicals), and rice (curbs diarrhea.)

Coughing helps to clear the breathing passages of mucus that can carry germs to the lungs. A gargle consisting of a teaspoon of salt in warm water can moisten the throat. A “tickle” in the throat may be relived by gargling with a tea containing tannin. Another popular gargle can be made by steeping one tablespoon of lemon juice or raspberry leaves in two cups of hot water; mix in one teaspoon of honey, and let cool to room temperature before gargling.

Even a stuffy nose can be beneficial in that it warms the infected area and helps carry germs out of the body. It is important to gently blow your nose often to help remove the germ carrying mucus. A salt-water nasal rinse will help break up the congestion and remove virus particles. A popular salt-water rinse recipe is to combine ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon baking soda with 8 ounces of warm water. Hold one nostril closed and squirt the solution into the other nostril using a bulb syringe 2-3 times. Repeat on the other side and let it drain. A steamy shower will also moisturize your nasal passages and help to relax you. Sleeping with an extra pillow may also help to relive congested nasal passages. Other suggestions include placing a hot or cold pack around the congested sinuses, or applying a small dab of mentholated salve under your nose. This can open breathing passages. Menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus all have mild numbing ingredients that may relieve the pain of raw nose.

Symptoms of the flu may be confused with other more serious conditions; therefore, it is wise to seek medical help if:

    • Your fever lasts for more than 3-4 days or if it comes back after if has been gone for 1-2 days.
    • Your cough becomes wheezy or rapid, you are having trouble breathing, or you are coughing bloody or yellow-green mucous.
    • If you smoke, and your condition worsens or you have any chronic illness, such as asthma, cancer, compromised immune system, diabetes, kidney, or blood cell problems you are at greater risk for complications and should seek medical attention.

What about antibiotics or prescription drugs?

Antibiotics are of no use for influenza because it is caused by a virus. There are four prescription drugs currently being used to treat the flu. Two have been available for a while and two are new. The older drugs, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine) interfere with the reproductive cycle of the type A influenza virus. They are not effective on Type B viruses. The new “flu drugs” or antiviral agents are used to treat both type A and Type B viruses. They are called Neuraminidase Inhibitors and are known as zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivier (Tamiflu). Tamiflu is administered in pill form. However, Relenza requires a special inhaler. These drugs help stop the influenza virus from replicating and have been shown shorten the duration of flu symptoms. Treatment must be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms and continues for 3-5 days. Unfortunately, as with any prescription medications, these drugs may cause unwanted side effects. The most common side effects of zanamivir are diarrhea, nausea and sinusitis. With amantadine and rimantadine side effects may include, headache, dizziness, insomnia, irritability, trouble concentrating, and anxiety.

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