The season for sneezing

The onset of the holiday season signals the beginning of another season as well: flu season.

As with any illness, forewarned is forearmed. By understanding what influenza is and how it works, you’ll be in the best possible position to protect yourself from an illness that is both debilitating and potentially fatal.

What is influenza?
Influenza – "flu" – is a highly contagious disease that attacks the respiratory system.

The illness is characterized by sudden onset of a stuffy nose, cough, significant fever (102�� F and above), muscle aches, headache and severe fatigue. Influenza looks and acts like an extremely severe cold gone bad.

The incubation period for flu is one to two days, meaning that once a person has encountered flu virus, it will take them up to two days to become ill.

Many people refer to short-lived episodes of nausea and vomiting as "stomach flu." In reality, there’s no such thing. Influenza is a respiratory disease that has nothing to do with the gut.

Occasionally influenza victims may become nauseated and vomit, particularly if their temperature is rising suddenly. This is a side effect of the fever, not part of the flu itself.

While many people regard influenza as a minor illness, it is actually a major cause of hospitalization and death in the United States, and affects all ages. In an average year, flu kills 36,000 people in the United States and hospitalizes 200,000.

A pandemic is an outbreak of disease that occurs on a global level and causes high numbers of illness and death. According to the World Health Organization, global influenza pandemics occur about every 20 – 30 years, and the next one is overdue.

The greatest world flu pandemic to date was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed more people than World War I, leaving between 20 and 40 million dead. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history, affecting one fifth of the Earth’s population and 28 percent of all people in the United States.


When to call the doctor

A physician should be called immediately if:

  • Fever exceeds 103�� F
  • Drainage from nose or lungs looks green, yellow or bloody
  • There is shortness of breath or severe ear pain
  • The patient is very young or very old
  • The patient appears extremely ill or suddenly becomes confused

How do I know if I’ve got the flu?
In most cases, you won’t have any trouble figuring this out. Flu has a very rapid onset. You may feel fine one moment and extremely ill two hours later.

You might notice a shaking chill as your temperature begins to climb, severe pain in your back and joints, headache and sudden exhaustion. Your nose will become congested and you will begin to cough. For you, the party is definitely over.

Preventing Flu
The best way is avoid the flu is to get a flu shot. That may not be possible this year because of the vaccine shortage, but next year, start looking for flu shot clinics in early October.

Flu shots aren’t 100 percent effective. However, a person who has been immunized and later contracts influenza will have a milder, shorter-lived infection.

There’s yet another good reason to get flu shots. Although protection is limited to specific flu viruses and isn’t considered permanent, there’s evidence that flu vaccine may offer protection for a period of years, and that it may offer protection to future influenza epidemics and pandemics.

During active flu season, it’s a good idea to avoid crowds and crowded places. Theoretically, if no one left their homes between November and March, no one would get the flu.

Hand-washing is important. Use soap and water and wash for 15 – 20 seconds at a time. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also kill flu virus.

Stay away from people who are obviously ill. If you live with someone who has the flu, wearing a mask may help you avoid infection. Even more important, don’t sleep in the same room with them.

Use your elbow to open doors when you can, and avoid using public phones. Don’t share toothbrushes, eating/drinking utensils or food and drink.

Adults typically are infectious from the day before symptoms begin through approximately five days after illness onset. In other words, you can spread flu before you even know you’ve got it.

It’s also important to practice good general health habits: eat well, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. By keeping up your resistance, you’ll be in the best position to fend off the flu virus.

If you know someone with the flu who lives alone, be a good friend and check in with them several times a day. But keep your distance while doing so!

Okay, I’ve got the flu. Now what?

Get comfortable
The active phase of influenza lasts about a week, and full recovery can take 2 – 4 weeks. If you push yourself and do not get lots of rest, as you should, full recovery may take months. Some evidence suggests that chronic fatigue syndrome may follow prolonged viral illnesses.

Stay home
Stay home from work and school and discourage visitors. While you may think that you "should" be at work or school, you’ve got to remember that the illness you feel capable of fending off can kill, and it’s your responsibility not to spread it!
If you live with other people, set yourself up in a room apart from everyone else. When you visit the common parts of your home, try not to touch anything, wash your hands a lot and avoid using bathroom glasses and other shared items.
Spend your time in bed or on the couch. The quieter you can be, the more energy your body will have to overcome the illness.
If you cough or blow your nose, use a tissue to do so and then don’t touch anything until you’ve washed your hands.

Drink water
When you have influenza, you almost cannot drink enough water to keep up with water lost through fever. You’ve got to keep the water going in almost continuously, or you risk the dangers of dehydration.
Dehydration is a special threat to the very young and very old. Tempt someone with the flu to take fluids by offering, water, juice, herbal teas, broth or popsicles. Avoid caffeinated drinks as these cause excess fluid to be lost via their diuretic effects.

Aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen will help to relieve both pain and fever. Note: children under age 18 should not take aspirin; the combination of influenza and aspirin in those under 18 is linked to a fatal disease known as Reye’s syndrome.
Over-the-counter decongestants – e.g. pseudoephedrine – may help decrease nasal stuffiness. Cough syrups and drops may help to soothe a cough and sore throat.
Antibiotics are not indicated for treating influenza, as they have no effect on viruses.
If taken within 48 hours after symptoms start, prescription antiviral medications can reduce the severity and duration of flu. Antivirals don’t kill the influenza virus but keep it from reproducing and can also make people less contagious.
Examples include oseltamivir (Tamflu), zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine).

Recipes for getting through the flu

Hot toddy
The "hot toddy" is a time-honored treatment for all respiratory illnesses, including influenza.

The word toddy has Scotch origins, and probably is a reference to Tod’s well, a spring located on a hill in the heart of Edinburgh and the water source for the city’s distilleries. The Scots developed a fondness for the hot toddy, realizing that it opened the lungs and brought a healthy flush to their cheeks.

In all hot toddies, the heat has a relaxing action, opens and moistens airways and loosens phlegm. Honey provides trace nutrients and has antibacterial/antiviral properties, while lemon provides vitamins and minerals. Together, honey and lemon furnish natural sugars and create a mild antipyretic (fever-lowering) action. The alcohol provides sedation and helps the patient sleep.

Classic Hot Toddy
Into a warmed mug, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon. Stir in 1tablespoon honey and 2 ounces whiskey (Irish whiskey is best). Fill mug with simmering hot water and stir to blend. Drink the toddy while it is as hot as possible, holding the mug below the nose and mouth so as to breathe the warm steam.

Chicken soup
There is actual scientific evidence that chicken soup is a beneficial part of treating flu. It soothes the airways, provides important nutrients and actually kills flu virus.

Simple chicken soup
Into a large kettle, place a whole chicken or a package of chicken parts (remove visible excess fat from either before adding to pot). Add 1 diced or sliced onion, 2 sliced carrots, 2-3 stalks of chopped celery, 2 garlic cloves (peeled and chopped), 1teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. (If available, a bay leaf and a handful of fresh parsley are also fine additions.) Bring slowly to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hours. Skim off foam as it accumulates.

After 2-3 hours, remove the chicken parts and allow them to cool slightly. Skim visible fat from surface of broth. Pull the chicken meat off the bones (throw skin and bones away) and return chicken meat to broth. Return soup to a boil. Toss in a couple of large handfuls of dry pasta or a handful of rice. Simmer until the rice or pasta is done.

Even simpler chicken soup:
Open a can of condensed chicken-with-anything soup. Prepare according to package directions, adding black pepper or red pepper flakes for therapeutic heat.