How Dangerous is The Influenza
For most people getting the flu is like getting a terrible cold. However, influenza has been deadly in the past and still is for specific segments of the population. The Spanish flu from 1917 through 1920 killed millions of victims. It spread rapidly, had a high mortality rate, and unfortunately, there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928. And, of course, there were no vaccines to prevent the spread of influenza. What is especially hideous about the Spanish flu is that it spread quickly at a time when travel was limited and much slower than modern-day cars, trains, and planes.
The avian or bird flu wasn’t very contagious but had a high fatality rate. So the odds were against you catching the flu, but when you did, the outlook wasn’t very favorable.
The 2009 Swine Flu, influenza A (H1N1), is an influenza virus that is a combination of a new strain of influenza A virus subtype H1N1 that derives from one strain of human influenza, one strain of avian (bird) influenza, and two separate strains of swine influenza.
And that’s what so insidious about the flu — and viruses for that matter — it may remain rather innocuous for years and then wham, become deadly. The next flu pandemic could be just around the corner.
Before April 2009, Swine Flu had been limited to pigs, aka swine. Humans can catch actual swine flu, but it has rarely happened. The human has to be around infected swine regularly. The virus passes from pig to human. There have been different varieties or strains of swine flu through the years. Currently, there is a vaccination to prevent swine flu in pigs. But that doesn’t mean the virus won’t mutate, so the vaccination becomes useless.
Swine flu was first diagnosed in pigs in 1930. Almost 50 years later, in 1976, a little over 200 soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey, came down with swine flu. From that time until 2005, there were few cases reported, less than one per year. From 2005 through January 2009, there were only 12 cases reported.
The run of the mill flu that comes around every winter and early spring isn’t necessarily a severe illness. However, the very young and the old are susceptible to complications, including pneumonia, and that’s why the health department encourages people to get a flu shot every year. FYI those flu shots are only 40% to 60% effective in preventing the flu. If you do still get the flu, you’ll get a milder case. At least that’s the theory. If you have the flu, the vaccine does not prevent you from spreading the flu.
Viruses, not bacteria, cause influenza. Other diseases caused by viruses are the common cold, shingles, HIV, Ebola, and the measles.
Viruses Are Nasty Creatures
Viruses are structures that only replicate or reproduce themselves within a host cell. Outside a host cell, they are dormant. Scientists do not agree on whether viruses should be considered a life form or be classified as biochemical mechanisms. Being alive is defined as reproducing, taking in and using energy, eliminating waste, growing and responding to the environment. Viruses only “live” for short periods outside the host cell if “live” is defined as maintaining the ability to reproduce themselves inside a host cell. Perhaps better terms than live or dead when talking about viruses would be active and de-activated. Viruses are not susceptible to treatment with antibiotics.
Why are viruses so dangerous to the host cells? The virus has a limited amount of DNA information for use in reproducing itself, but it doesn’t have all the necessary biological materials. The only purpose of a virus is to replicate itself. Once it enters the host cell, it uses that host’s material to replicate itself thousands of times, destroying the host cell and invading other cells within the host. The viruses can leave the host cell a few at a time called “budding,” or all the viruses can leave at once called “lysis.” Think of it as an intensive alien invasion because that’s what it is.
Every living organism, plant, animal, or bacteria matter, is susceptible to viruses. The saving grace is that specific viruses can only find the genetic material they need to replicate within specific organisms. In other words, the tobacco mosaic virus only affects tobacco plants. To make matters worse, there may be a hundred different viruses with the capability to infect one specific organism.
The terrible news is that viruses can evolve and mutate. One virus can reproduce itself hundreds of thousands of times. Each reproduction can lead to a small change, or mutation, within the virus. Even if 90% of the reproduced viruses are faulty, the remaining 10% are functioning. Some of the modifications may mean they can infect other organisms besides the original host. The Ebola virus is thought to have originated in fruit bats, mutated to primates, and then mutated to infect humans. While it seems to have run itself out currently, it could come back.
Some viruses remain in the host after the initial infection and then cause severe further damage later, much like the chickenpox virus causes shingles.
The influenza virus is another virus that is notorious for mutating. Avian influenza mutated to be able to infect humans in the early 2000s. What causes a particular virus to mutate isn’t known.
What’s Dangerous About the Flu
Influenza passes quickly from human to human. A new strain doesn’t have a developed vaccine to prevent infection. It takes time to figure out what the new pressure consists of how it developed and then develop a vaccine. This was the problem with the swine flu. It infected millions before a vaccine could be developed. Vaccines work by introducing a weakened or dead strain of the virus into the body. The body builds up an immunity to the weakened or dead virus. When the full strength live virus tries to invade the body, the body can fight back with the previously produced antibodies. That’s why you don’t keep passing the same cold around from person to person in your family. Once you’ve had that particular cold virus, you can’t get it again.
The flu shot touted by pharmacists, doctors, and health care providers is a combination of three of the most common strains of flu. It’s about 50% effective.
Antibiotics are only useful for secondary bacterial infections. BTW antibodies are different than antibiotics. Antibiotics do not affect viral infections. None at all. Nada. Nothing. Don’t think taking a series of antibiotics prevents or treats the flu or any other virus for that matter. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.
You might think it’s a good idea to start a series of antibiotics to prevent getting any secondary infection. Think again. Antibiotics today aren’t as effective as they were 20 years ago because bacteria are becoming resistant. Look at it this way. The weak bacteria are killed off by say amoxicillin, an antibiotic that’s a derivative of penicillin. However, a strain of bacteria develops that is highly resistant to amoxicillin. You then need stronger antibiotics to kill off the resistant strain. It doesn’t help that animals are fed antibiotics — not to cure infections — but to help them gain weight faster. The bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and are useless in treating infections.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics take the full course. You may feel better after only a few days — most antibiotics start working after the first 48 hours. However, the bacteria causing the infection are still at work. The stronger bacteria may survive a week of antibiotics and cause a re-infection if you stop too early.
While influenza is normally not a serious health risk, there have been epidemics that have had fatal and far-reaching effects. The influenza pandemic of 1917 – 1920 killed more people than the black plague; estimates range from 20 million to 50 million. Pandemic means that the disease has a wide geographic distribution. Most influenza viruses are air bore within a limited 6-foot range, which means you do not need to physically come in contact with an infected person to be infected yourself.
Another example of an influenza pandemic was the Influenza A (H1N1) swine flu. Fortunately, it fizzled out before it reached anywhere near the level of the Spanish flu. At the height of the epidemic in 2009, the World Health Organization released the following information:
Seventy-four countries had officially reported 29,669 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection.
The United States Government reported 13,217 laboratory-confirmed human cases, including 27 deaths. Mexico had reported 6291 confirmed human cases of infection, including 108 deaths.
A new influenza strain can be dangerous if it spreads quickly and mutates as it goes. The body has no chance to build up immunity, and the medical community hasn’t time to develop a vaccine. Since the first case was reported on April 2, 2009, Swine Flu spread to 4 continents and 11 countries in a little more than four weeks. That rate of infection was potentially dangerous. Keep in mind that while there may be less than 1000 cases officially documented, there could be 100 times that many people infected. No regulation or law says a person must see a doctor if they have flu symptoms or that the doctor must test for the flu. Many cases go unreported.
Previous flu viruses have an average infection rate of one person infecting two other people. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Look at it this way: if each person affects two different people within 48 hours (average length of time to become infected) by the end of 30 days that one person could have caused the infection of over 130,000 others. A flu outbreak can quickly reach massive proportions.
How the Flu Is Transmitted
As stated above, the flu is an influenza virus and can’t exist, live, or remain active for long outside the host. Viruses can be transmitted in a number of ways. HIV is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids, so it is ebola. Smallpox, a virus deadly in the past, is contracted through lengthy exposure to an infected person. The respiratory flu is spread through respiratory droplets.
To become infected with the flu, you must be standing within about 3 to 6 feet of an infected person. Just passing by someone on the street won’t get you infected. The virus is carried through the air in respiratory droplets. The droplets are released through sneezing, coughing, or just breathing. These droplets can land on a hard surface and live up to 24 hours or on a soft surface and live less than 30 minutes. The UV exposure of the surface and air temperatures affect how long the virus will live as well.
Even exposure to someone with flu doesn’t mean you’ll get sick. The human body has wonderful defenses. If only a few cells are infected, the body produces and secretes something called interferons. These are proteins and are designated alpha, beta, or gamma interferon. These particular proteins interact with the cells adjacent to the infected cells to make them more resistant to viral infection. This natural defense often works to stop the virus dead in its tracks. The interferon does not kill the virus but makes the cells more resistant to the viral invasion. The virus can’t reproduce, so it dies off. Later on, you may not even have known that you were infected at all.
Sometimes, however, the virus is stronger and spreads to more cells, and you start feeling sick. At that point, the immune system begins to fight by killing the viruses that are outside of the cells and the infected cells themselves.
Symptoms start 1 to 2 days after exposure, and the person is the most infectious at that point. However, the person can infect others before any symptoms show up.
Treatments for Flu
Once you have contracted influenza, there isn’t any so-called cure. There are things you can do to feel better and drugs you can take that lessen the severity of the flu.
You can get Antiviral drugs by prescription only and come in pill, liquid, or inhaler form. These are not antibiotics, nor do they work the way antibiotics work by killing the bacteria causing the disease. Antiviral drugs work by preventing the virus from reproducing.
Oseltamivir and zanamivir are two antiviral drugs that have shown to be effective against the flu. They are most effective if treatment is started with 48 hours of getting sick. The drugs make you feel better faster and make the effects of the illness less severe.
Unfortunately, many hospitals and pharmacies don’t have enough of these drugs available if there is an epidemic of flu. Some hospitals have limited the ability to prescribe the drugs to only a few doctors in order to prevent stockpiling of the drug by people who think they may have the flu but don’t. Or those who are afraid they may get the flu and want the drug on hand “just in case.”
Fortunately, with the common winter flu, drug treatment is not critical to survival. Lessening the symptoms of the flu is the primary course of action. These treatments make the patient more comfortable, as well.
Get plenty of rest. If you need to stay in bed, then do so. Your body heals and restores itself as you sleep. When you rest all your resources go to feeling better and thwarting the flu virus.
Drink plenty of fluids. Your body needs to re-hydrate, especially if you have a fever. Drink a glass of water or other liquids every hour or so, even if you don’t feel thirsty. If you don’t feel like eating, then don’t.
Taking aspirin or Tylenol may lower the fever and reduce pain, but as noted, the fever is one of the ways the body fights off the viral infection. Do not give children aspirin. Don’t go over the recommended dosage.
A salt solution nasal spray helps with stuffiness. Gargling with salt water helps an irritated throat.
The only 100% effective method of prevention is to avoid coming in contact with anyone else. Since that’s not possible for most individuals, there are some steps you can take that lessen the odds of coming down with the flu and other diseases for that matter.
Wash Your Hands
Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 to 30 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel. Rub a dollop of gel on your hands until it evaporates. Use an alcohol-based hand wipe. Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs, including viruses.
Think of all the surfaces you touch that other people touch:
food service trays
If a person has the flu, even without obvious symptoms, and touches their nose or mouth and then the door handle, they leave viruses on the handle. You come along and touch the handle to open the door, and the viruses are now on your hand. Touching your hand to your nose or your mouth leads the virus right to where it wants to be.
Keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket and use it every time you touch something that other people may have touched.
Be conscious of how many times you touch your face.
Many grocery stores now provide disinfectant wipes to be used on the grocery carts. Most doors now open automatically, so it’s not necessary to touch any handles. When you’re in the store, apply hand sanitizer after checking out. Both the cashier and courtesy help have contact with hundreds of customers each day.
If you live in an area where an outbreak of flu has been found, you might want to consider two other measures that are a bit more extreme: wearing disposable latex gloves whenever you’re in public and wearing a face mask.
If you wear gloves, remember you still should not touch your nose or mouth as the virus can live on the latex surface. Dispose of the gloves and face mask, so others aren’t exposed. And don’t become complacent thinking that if you wear a face mask or don gloves, you don’t have to do anything else.
Wipe off and Disinfect
You may be diligent about washing your hands, but other members of your family may not be, especially children. Wipe down counters, door handles, and telephone mouthpieces, with a disinfectant. Use paper towels in the bathrooms that are thrown away after each use. Use throwaway paper drinking cups. Don’t share toothbrushes. Household bleach is an effective, inexpensive disinfectant. Use one part bleach to 10 parts water. Vinegar is a disinfectant as well but not as powerful as bleach.
Stay Away from Crowds
It’s common sense that the more people you’re around, the more likely it is you will come into contact with someone who is sick.
Boosting Your Immune System to Prevent the Flu
While there was some concern with the 2009 Swine flu that in certain individuals, a strong immune system would overreact and become a threat to their health, until there is conclusive proof, it would seem prudent to bolster your body’s ability to fight back.
Foods and Supplements that boost immunity include:
Vitamin C: Found in lots of fruits and vegetables but especially citrus fruits. Vitamin C fortified foods abound. And of course, it’s found in supplements. Why does Vitamin C work? It increases the production of white blood cells, antibodies, and interferon.
Vitamin E: Whole grains, leafy green vegetables, egg yolks, and nuts all contain Vitamin E. Vitamin E stimulates the production of Killer T-cells and increases the production of B-cells which manufacture antibodies.
Carotenoids: Beta carotene boosts Killer T-cells. Carotenoids are found in carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, and spinach. It increases the number of infection-fighting cells, natural killer cells, and helper T-cells, as well as being a powerful antioxidant.
Zinc: Found in protein, primarily from animal sources, and is available as a supplement. It increases the production of white blood cells that fight infection and help the body release more antibodies.
Garlic: A member of the onion family and available as a supplement; it boosts the production of white blood cells and antibody production.
Selenium: Found in a number of protein sources, brown rice, sunflower seeds, and nuts and of course, available as a supplement. This mineral increases Killer T-cells.
Omega-3 fatty acids: The omega 3 fatty acids in flax oil and fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) boosts immunity by increasing the activity of macrophages.
Some people believe that herbal supplements can boost the immune system the same way that foods, vitamins, and supplements can. Four that are often mentioned are Echinacea, Ginseng, Astragalus, and Marshmallow root – also known as Althaea. Do they work? No scientific studies have been conducted that prove that they do. But that’s understandable. The herbal supplements can’t be patented, so there is no motivation for the big pharmaceutical companies to spend the money to conduct the studies.
Your body heals and recharges itself when you’re asleep. It’s important to give your body enough sleep time. That’s not always easy in today’s hectic world. There are herbal supplements that have been shown to promote sleep, such as Melatonin and herbal teas like chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, or hops. And the old fashioned remedy of warm milk really does work in promoting sleep.
Keep your bedroom sleep oriented, with no laptop computer or work-related stuff around, and keep it dark with light-blocking shades. Wear a sleep mask; ambient light works against sleep. Turn the clock away from you, so you don’t see the time and worry about it. And so the light from the digital display isn’t visible. Lower the temperature of the bedroom. It’s been shown the people sleep better in a cooler room. A drop in body temperature means sounder sleep.
Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. While you may fall asleep faster when the alcohol wears off, it will disturb the sleep cycle. Keep in mind that some over the counter cough and cold medicines have as much as 10% alcohol.
Drink lots of fluids during the day but limit fluids an hour or so before bedtime, so sleep isn’t interrupted by having to use the bathroom.
Decrease Stress Levels
It is thought that prolonged high-stress levels weaken the immune system. Each of us has moments when the stress in our lives seems overwhelming. We’ve just started a new job, had a baby, gotten married, or faced an illness. But everyday life can be filled with stressful moments as well. Decreasing stress levels can boost our immunity to illnesses, including influenza. Here are a few tips to help keep stress from building up.
Changing your diet to include more fresh vegetables and fruits and fewer sugars, salt, and refined carbohydrates can be helpful. Obviously, decreasing your caffeine intake would help, as well. Caffeine can aggravate some of the symptoms of stress. Lemon balm tea is a good substitute for coffee as it has calming properties.
Increasing the level of vitamin C, an antioxidant, boosts the immune system and has been shown to decrease stress-related infections. Other antioxidants you might consider are Vitamin A and E.
Aromatherapy is another way to bring down stress levels. Aromatherapy relies on the use of essential oils. Essential oils are derived from plants, herbs, flowers, woods, and citrus fruit peel. Lavender, Clary Sage, Rosemary, Sandalwood, and Tangerine are a few essential oils that have a soothing calming effect. Lavender is used in some baby bath products to help infants drift calmly off to sleep.
The oil can be added to a non-scented candle and burned. Light the candle and let it develop a pool of melted wax around the wick. Blow out the candle and add the essential oil to the melted wax and then relight. If you just add the oil to the melted wax while the candle is lit, the oil floats on top and is burnt off immediately.
The oils can be added to a warm bath, ¼ teaspoon up to a full teaspoon. The warm bath itself reduces stress by increasing blood circulation and relaxing muscles. Epsom salt and sea salt (1 to 2 cups) added to a bathtub in addition to the essential oils soothes sore muscles and adds a sense of buoyancy.
Be careful rubbing essential oils directly on your skin: it could cause irritation.
Exercise is a time tested method of reducing stress levels. Just make sure that the exercise is completed at least four hours before bedtime. Exercising close to bedtime might make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Massage, especially on the neck and shoulders, reduces stress and helps alleviate the headaches that some people experience with stress. Self-massage can be performed on the temples and back of the neck.
Yoga and Pilates (an exercise discipline) include stretching movements that release tension within the muscles and aids in blood flow, thereby reducing stress.
Meditation is well known for its ability to decrease stress. Meditation can be combined with aromatherapy and gentle stretches after the session is completed.
You Think You May Have the Flu
Don’t panic. There isn’t any way to tell if you have the common winter flu or a new strain of flu. In either case, visit your doctor and start the antiviral medicine within 48 hours of becoming ill.
Don’t go to the emergency room. Hospitals are whirlpools of germs, especially the emergency waiting room. If you didn’t have the flu when you entered, you might very well have it when you leave if your doctor isn’t available to visit an Urgent Care Facility.
Use tissues when you sneeze or cough and immediately dispose of the tissue into a plastic-lined paper bag. Wash your hands after every cough or sneeze. If you’re too weak to get up to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer. Doing this won’t make you any better, but it will protect your family and friends from getting sick.
A humidifier adds moisture to the air, which is soothing to your throat and nasal membranes. Holding your head over steaming water has the same effect, but be careful of burns. If you have a facial steamer, that is effective as well.
Be careful about using an over-the-counter nasal decongestant spray. After three days of constant use, the spray can actually make you more congested.
Your grandma was right: chicken soup does help alleviate cold and flu symptoms. Seriously. If you don’t have a grandma handy to make homemade soup, canned is fine.
While any new influenza virus has a frightening potential for spreading illness across the globe, there are efforts we can take to keep ourselves safe. Knowing what the flu is, what it isn’t, how it’s transmitted, and how you can decrease the odds of becoming infected are the first steps in keeping you and your family healthy and safe.
Keep up-to-date on where new cases have been found. Visit the world health organization, for the latest information.
Take necessary precautions yourself and make sure your family does the same.
Don’t panic if you come down with flu symptoms.
Avoid crowded venues.
If you do become sick, don’t infect others by going back to work while you’re still ill.