All Things Human: ‘Tis the Season(To Think About Flu and Pneumonia)

Any problem with our lungs can be life threatening.  The job of the lungs, which is to bring oxygen into our system as fuel for all our cells, is critical. If our lungs stop working, we cannot survive.

Some lung conditions are hereditary, such as cystic fibrosis, and cannot be avoided. Many, however, are brought on by environmental factors that can be averted or minimized. Influenza and pneumonia, powerful killers since antiquity, are lung diseases that can now be effectively prevented.

Pneumonia is the term given to an infection affecting the lungs air sacs, or alveoli, which is where oxygen is transported from inhaled air to the blood.  It is most frequently caused by viruses or bacteria. Flu viruses are very small particles of genetic material that insinuate themselves into the cells of their victims and cause systems to malfunction.  The respiratory tract is particularly vulnerable.   Unfortunately, medical treatment to eradicate flu infection is woefully limited.  Bacteria, on the other hand, are much larger and can frequently be killed by chemicals called antibiotics .However, if the bacteria are very numerous, or if they have become resistant, medical treatment may be ineffective.

Influenzal pneumonia can be a direct cause of dire illness or even death, but more commonly a person suffering from the flu has such inflamed lungs that they contract a secondary, potentially fatal bacterial lung invasion. These secondary bacterial pneumonias are the number one cause of death attributable to flu.

The damaging characteristics of influenza strains vary year to year. One particularly dangerous variety arrived in the winter of 1918-1919, when ⅓ of the planet’s population became infected and up to 50 million people died. Even in a typical year, when less treacherous types abound, tens of thousands of Americans die due to influenza. Overall, lung infections, be they viral or bacterial, are the 8th leading cause of death in the United States today.

What can you do to prevent flu or pneumonial illness? Hygiene is felt to be the single most important factor in reducing the spread of these perilous organisms.  First and foremost, avoid close contact with ill people. During the flu season, try to stay out of crowds in poorly ventilated areas. And be meticulous in “breaking the chain” of flu particle migration. Frequent hand washing, washing down shopping cart handles, door knobs, etc., and abstaining from touching your mouth, nose or eyes with uncleansed hands–can go a long way to blocking the influenza virus’s entrance into your body. History shows that improved living conditions/hygiene in the western world was responsible for the marked drop in flu and pneumonia deaths during the early and mid-twentieth century.

In addition to good sanitation, vaccinations markedly reduce the likelihood you will contract or succumb to infection.  Influenza vaccines, constructed to promote immunity to the 3 or 4 strains anticipated in the upcoming season, decrease the likelihood of flu by 80-85%. As strains vary year to year, annual vaccination is needed.  Not only do these vaccines dramatically reduce the likelihood of illness in the recipient, they also inhibit asymptomatic folks from being influenza carriers. So getting the vaccine not only saves you from disease, it may save your friends and family from contracting it as well.

There are also shots aimed directly against one of the common bacterial causes of pneumonia, a germ called pneumococcus. These immunizations are administered to infants, adults over 65, and any individual–regardless of age–with a chronic condition such as diabetes that makes them particularly vulnerable to these maladies.

Vaccines are one of the most important advances in medicine’s battle against infectious illness. Concerns that someone can “get the flu” from the vaccine are unfounded. There are no active influenza particles present in the shots!  However, as the injections do stimulate the immune system, mild flu-like symptoms can arise transiently. Rarely, a process called Guillain-Barre develops in which sometimes serious neurologic signs develop. It is crucial to note, however, that you are far, far, far more likely to benefit from immunization than be harmed.

Medications can help diminish flu and pneumonia should the conditions develop despite your best efforts.  Oseltamivir (“Tamiflu”) is a prescription used to limit flu symptoms or reduce the likelihood of developing the illness should exposure be confirmed. Most medical offices have the capacity to diagnose the flu quickly with a nasal swab. Unfortunately, cost, availability and side effects restrict this medication’s utility.  Antibiotics are effective tools to battle bacterial pneumonia, but they have no ability whatsoever to destroy influenza viruses.

So, do you want a carefree, healthy winter? Wash your hands, stay away from sick people, get your vaccines, and see your doctor if you get ill. Anything you can do to avoid the potentially deadly lung condition, pneumonia, is worth it!



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