What really is the flu, how does one get it, what can be done to prevent it and treat it? These are questions on many people’s minds once the annual flu season gets underway. A little bit of knowledge can improve your chances of staying healthy this winter, so read on!
How does such a tiny thing, invisible even under a regular microscope, cause such havoc? Knowing the basics of the actual flu virus can help you understand the rapid onset and remarkable contagiousness of this illness.
Flu viruses, like all viruses, are not truly independent living organisms. Rather, these parasites consist mainly of strands of genetic material (RNA, which is like DNA) and cannot even replicate on their own. But they have a special (H) protein which helps the virus attach to and enter a cell (such as a cell in your respiratory tract). Once inside, the viral RNA commandeers your cell’s duplication machinery to churn out millions of new viral particles. A second (N) protein makes the cell release all those new viruses into general circulation. This rapid increase of infecting particles in your body explains why the onset of influenza is classically very sudden. And the vast viral population that quickly arises also makes it extremely easy for even the very recently stricken to pass on the illness to others.
Flu vaccines work by helping your system make destructive antibodies against those (H) and (N) proteins. Ironically, though, it seems that an imperfection in the flu virus replication process—called “sloppy transcription” or “sloppy copying”—frequently turns out viral progeny that are not precise copies– and it is this tendency to mutation that quickly renders flu vaccines(or natural immunity) ineffective! Flu vaccines are set to help you develop immunity to two or three variants of flu. Researchers try to predict which mutations, or strains, will cause most of the problems the following year. If they predict wrong, the flu vaccine is useless. If they predict correctly, it will reduce your risk of serious flu illness by about 60%, but only for that year! The ongoing mutations ensure any immunity is temporary.
The flu virus usually enters your body because you have inhaled small “aerosolized” mucous droplets containing viral particles or because you have acquired viral particles on your hands and then transferred them to your eyes, nose or mouth. It is estimated that a single sneeze produces 40,000 mucous droplets, and that even a single droplet can cause infection! As for your hands, they have found that viral particles can persist on hard surfaces such as doorknobs and money for several days. Luckily, though, simple disinfectants, even soap and water, effectively destroy this pathogen.
The flu virus causes bothersome symptoms in two ways. First, the process of invading and taking over cells causes tissue damage. Secondly, as your body tries to destroy the virus, it sends “attack” proteins and fluid to the affected area. The most resulting common symptoms are fever, headache, muscle aches, sore throat, and dry cough. They classically come on suddenly and are accompanied by profound fatigue. Rarely, these processes are so severe they can be fatal! Most bad outcomes occur in infants, pregnant women and the elderly. A more common, also potentially deadly outcome of flu infection is a secondary bacterial infection, like pneumonia. Smokers, as well as the populations noted above, are the most susceptible to this dangerous influenza complication.
Diagnosis of the flu is typically made by physician assessment with or without laboratory tests. Medications for the flu, such as Tamiflu or the inhaler Relenza, are useful only if started very quickly after illness onset; even then are only partially effective. They reduce the severity and time period of the illness, rather than cure it. Additionally, they have significant side effects such as vomiting, headache and asthma attack—and are very expensive! Thus, treatment is mandatory only for those particularly vulnerable to the disease. Antibiotics are totally ineffective against viral illnesses, but are essential should the dreaded post-flu pneumonia occur!
So what can you do to reduce your chances of getting—and spreading—the flu? If possible, get vaccinated! This year’s flu vaccine is an excellent match, and it takes only 10-14 days to develop protective antibodies. And next year, get it as early as possible! An extra strength shot is now available for seniors, and it seems to improve immunity, as does regular exercise! Smoking cessation will reduce your chances of getting the flu, as well as making a milder illness more likely if you are unlucky enough to succumb. Also, wash your hands regularly, as viral particles persist on inanimate objects. And if you are sick, take care not to cough or sneeze freely into the air.
And when is a trip to the doctor needed? If you are a young or middle-aged adult and are quite sure it is the flu, evaluation initially may not be necessary. However, if you are interested in seeing if you are a candidate for antiviral medication, a visit within 48hours of illness onset is in order. Regardless, for everyone 2-3 days of bed rest, plus non aspirin analgesics and abundant hydration are key. Avoid close contacts with other so as to limit disease spread. And physician evaluation is mandatory if trouble breathing is present, or you begin to worsen after you initial improve (this may be a sign that secondary pneumonia is present). Also, due to the increased risk of poor outcome, young children, pregnant females, and the elderly should see their doctors for any flu-like symptoms.
Some strains of the flu are a nuisance, some are deadly. They are all highly contagious, hard to predict and difficult to treat. Do whatever you can to reduce your chance of getting, or spreading this disease!
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