How to Prevent the Flu
Every year, during fall and winter, flu season occurs in the U.S. Some years are worse than others and, right now, we’re in the middle of a pretty big one. News reports talk about people, some of them young and apparently healthy, dying due to this epidemic. But what, exactly, is the flu? How do we fight it and, more importantly, what steps can be taken to prevent contracting it?
What is the Flu?
Influenza is a contagious, viral, respiratory disease. It is like a cold, which is also viral, but the symptoms tend to develop more quickly and are more severe. It is divided into three types. Type A, which is found in humans and animals, tends to have the most severe symptoms and undergoes the most mutation over time. Type B influenza, which only infects humans, tends to be less severe and is rarely responsible for large epidemics. Type C is the mildest form and infection can sometimes go unnoticed.
Flu virus invades the cells of the respiratory tract, invading the nucleus and using its resources to replicate itself many times over. Eventually, the cell’s membrane ruptures and releases the replicated viruses out into the body where they can invade other cells. It is this hijacking of cells that is responsible for causing the symptoms of flu.
Flu symptoms begin to emerge within one to four days after the virus enters the body. Symptoms tend to include fever, body aches, fatigue, and extreme exhaustion. There are several respiratory tract symptoms that can occur. These can include runny nose, chest congestion, sneezing and cough. These symptoms are generally not life-threatening, but the virus can weaken the immune system, leaving the person susceptible to more serious complications.
Secondary infections, such as bacterial pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus or ear infection can occur. Unchecked fever can also result in dehydration. People with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, tend to be more susceptible to hospitalization due to complications of flu.
Why Do We Deal With Different Strains of Flu Every Year?
Many people don’t realize that viruses have DNA, so they are able to evolve and adapt to the immunities presented by a community. When someone is exposed to a specific strain of virus, whether by vaccine or outbreak, their body produces antigens to fight that strain. Upon repeated exposure, those antigens allow the immune system to stop the virus. By having the ability to evolve over time, the strain of virus can change just enough to keep those antigens from doing their job.
There are two ways in which this can occur. Antigenic drift is a slight change that results in a similar strain that can still be recognized by the body’s antigens. It takes several of these drift events to render an antigen ineffective against the strain. Abrupt changes, which are referred to as antigenic shift, result in a single large-scale change that causes an antigen to become ineffective following a single mutation event. Type A viruses are capable of both types of evolution, but type B can only undergo antigenic drift.
Are Annual Vaccines Really Necessary?
There are a few reasons why it’s necessary to get a vaccine every year. First, the evolution of strains requires changes to the specific antigens being induced by the vaccine for those strains. Tracking of the specific strains that have circulated recently can give some clues as to whether those changes are gradual or abrupt, but there is often some guesswork involved, also.
Secondly, the protection provided by flu vaccines is only temporary. The immune response they provide is going to decline over time. For this reason, it is recommended that all people over the age of 6 months receive flu vaccines every year.
Finally, there is no way of telling, from year to year, which strains of flu virus will take hold and which strains won’t. The larger a community of susceptible hosts a specific strain is exposed to, the more likely it is to become a problem that season.
Why Has This Year’s Flu Season Been in the News?
The CDC has reported widespread flu activity throughout the continental U.S. this flu season. Although the word “epidemic” has been used, that doesn’t mean there is cause for panic. Nearly every year, the flu outbreak meets the criteria for this because it tends to happen at a given time throughout specific communities.
The strain that is prevalent this year, H3N2, is among a type that tends to result in more severe outbreaks. H3 viruses are often tied to more serious illness, particularly in the very young and the elderly, decreased vaccine effectiveness, and increased hospitalizations. This is the third time in the past five years that a strain has been responsible for a particularly severe flu season.
There have been multiple reports, in the media, of pediatric and healthy adult deaths this flu season. However, it should be noted that an immune system that has been weakened by the flu virus can become susceptible to secondary bacterial infections, like pneumonia, that can cause life-threatening complications. Chronic health conditions can also increase the possibility of flu-related complications.
Precautions to Prevent Spreading the Flu
Flu viruses have been long believed to be spread by droplets that occur when the sick person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. These can spread the virus across distances up to six feet apart. If the droplet is taken into the respiratory tract of someone nearby, they can get infected. It could also land on a surface and, if someone touches it then puts their hand to their face, the virus could also be transferred. New research is suggesting, however, that influenza (the flu) can spread just by breath.
The flu symptoms typically begin anywhere from one to four days is generally contagious in adults from one day before symptoms begin until five to seven days later. This span can be a couple of days longer in children. Since the virus can be spread even when the person isn’t visibly sick, it’s important to take the following precautions throughout flu season:
- Staying Home – Whenever possible, anyone showing signs of the flu should stay home to protect others.
- Getting Plenty of Rest – Lack of sleep can be a deficit to the immune system. If you don’t get the proper amount of rest each night, you will be more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. If you are sick and do not get enough sleep, it can effect the amount of time that it will take to recover. In order for the body to properly rejuvenate, it is important to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
- Practice Caution – It is important to be cautious, especially if you are in a place where there are those you know are ill. For example at work, as not everyone stays home when they are sick. Avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes. Try to be cautious about sharing objects or touching things like doorknobs, faucet handles, toilet handles, and phones. Use your foot to flush the toilet if you can, clean the phone before you use it, wipe down or use a cloth to use faucet handles or doorknobs. If you know you have to come in contact with those that are sick, a flu mask can be helpful.
- Covering Your Cough – Contain coughs and sneezes in a tissue, or the crook of your arm, to cut down on germs traveling through the air or transferring virus to your hands and leaving it on surfaces.
- Washing Hands Frequently – It is important to be vigilant about your personal hygiene. Wash hands after using the restroom, after sneezing or coughing, after eating, after being around those that are sick, etc. Don’t just use a hand sanitizer, soap and water is the best way. Hot water and soap should be used, for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible during flu season. Hand sanitizer can be useful for those times you aren’t able to get to a sink, however it shouldn’t be relied upon alone.
- Avoiding Crowds – Close proximity to others, particularly in enclosed spaces like elevators and airplanes, can increase your chances of catching the flu. People with fragile immune systems should consider wearing a flu mask, in crowded locations, for self-protection.
- Sharing Personal Items – If someone you live with has the flu, take care not to use dishes, utensils, or even bedding that the one infected has used, without washing it first.
- Reduce Stress – Stress can be trying on the immune system and leave you vulnerable to illness. It is important to find ways to reduce stress such as taking a hot bath, listening to music, reading a good book, going to therapy, or working out.
- Be Active – Exercise offers many great benefits to the body. One of these great benefits is that it can boost your immune system. Exercise provides a boost to those cells in your body that are meant to attack bacteria and your immune system is able to better handle bacteria that can cause illness. For those that don’t currently exercise these cells will work more slowly. It is important to find the right balance of activity and rest. As too much exercise can hurt your immune system.
- Get proper nutrients – Eating a healthy diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and low in saturated fat helps to bolster your immune system.
- Getting vaccinated – According to the CDC getting the flu shot reduces doctor visits due to influenza by approximately 40-60%. There is still the chance of contracting the flu after you receive the flu vaccine, but typically the effects are less.
- Visiting Your Doctor – Antibiotics aren’t helpful with the flu, unless you develop a secondary infection, but antiviral medications can make a difference if they’re administered no more than 36 hours following exposure to the flu virus.
What Can You Take Away From This?
Most people who catch the flu can ride out the symptoms and come out of it fine. However, those with compromised immune systems, or who happen to be exposed to secondary infections, can suffer serious, life-threatening complications. If you take the proper precautions, you can greatly lessen the chances of contracting the flu.