Winter is just around the corner but flu season is in full force already. Chances are you know what I’m talking about! Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never caught the flu, though this post will teach you a little bit about what you’re missing.
The flu, known formally as influenza, is a virus that causes illness. Its symptoms range from mild, such as those associated with a common cold (like a runny nose and a cough), to more severe, like pneumonia and, very rarely, death. The flu virus has existed for centuries. Outbreaks of the flu and other viruses occurred in epidemic proportions until we were able to track and understand more about infections and how they spread. The Spanish flu of 1918-19 was actually a pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide. Nowadays, an estimated 36,000 people still die from various forms of influenza each year, partly due to the lack of vaccinations in some areas.
Compared to decades ago when we first began to understand infectious diseases, catching the flu these days usually means you’ll miss a couple days of work, at worst.
The most common symptoms of the flu include a runny nose, cough, body aches, chills, fever, sometimes diarrhea and vomiting, and profound fatigue. Other viruses that cause common colds can cause similar symptoms, but the influenza virus tends to make you sicker and tends to last longer. The flu tends to be more common during the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. The exact reasons for this trend are unclear, but it may be related to more folks being indoors and in closer contact with each other, allowing the airborne virus to spread from person to person more easily. Also, less sunlight may allow the virus to live outside of the body longer rather than being killed by the ultraviolet rays of the sun. In the winter, there is an abundance of dry, cold air, which prevents mucus membranes from doing their job of clearing out pathogens. Finally, less sunlight means less vitamin D, which lowers our immune responsiveness.
Tips for Preventing the Flu
So, what can you do to keep yourself from getting the flu?
Well, the old fashion tricks still work to keep you well: hand washing, keeping your distance from others who are ill, getting plenty of rest and exercise, proper nutrition, and keeping your hands away from your face and mouth, just to name a few. In addition, getting a flu shot really does offer you protection – NO you do NOT get sick from a flu shot. The traditional flu shot works by giving your body exposure to a tiny amount of dead or “inactivated” virus, which allows your own body to mount an immune response by producing something in your blood stream called “antibodies.” Your body makes these antibodies within approximately two weeks of your exposure to the virus. Once your body has made its own antibodies, you will be protected from getting sick with the same virus if exposed to it again. You still might become infected with the flu virus but you won’t be nearly as ill from the infection as you would be if you didn’t get a vaccine.
The bottom line is that getting a flu shot can help you recover faster from the flu because you become less ill if you are exposed. Vaccinations against the flu are quite effective if the formula, which changes each year depending on what strain of flu is circulating in any given year, is a good match for what is circling the globe during “flu season.” You should speak with your doctor to determine if the flu shot is safe and recommended for you. The general rule of thumb is that if you are healthy and have no reason to not get a flu shot, then it’s probably smart to get your shot to help prevent the spread of illness.
To stay healthy during “flu season” the old fashioned ideas still apply: eat right, get enough sleep, stay well hydrated, and exercise regularly! You won’t regret the investment in YOU and you may find that if you do catch one of the nasty bugs out there, that your body is perfectly poised to do its job for you and FIGHT BACK.
Until next time, here’s to the best of your health!
Elizabeth Salada, MD
Internal medicine and wellness