Your Best Weapon for Avoiding or Treating Influenza Is Knowledge
One thing no one warns you about is the monotony of influenza. They tell you it lasts an average of two weeks. Add to that the recovery time to build your strength back up. If you come down with the flu, you’ll be contagious for about a week. Kids can be contagious even longer. More later on how to avoid catching the flu.
The last time I had the flu, I endured coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, muscle aches, fatigue, the whole shebang. I drank fluids till I felt like a horizontal sponge. My main memory is of how boring the experience was.
“How are you?” asks a friend.
“Not great,” I reply
Repeat this exchange several times a day, every day, for at least two weeks, with minor variations. Get the idea?
In fact, if the flu weren’t so boring, the symptoms might not last as long. That’s because a shorter illness might save you from enduring a Groundhog’s-Day cycle capable of threatening even the most cheerful person’s will to live.
But maybe that’s just my experience. The moral of my story is: Avoid catching the flu!
One thing is certain. The flu virus never lacks a will to live. Once it gets ahold of you, it relentlessly goes through a lifecycle that turns your body into a nursery for bringing more virus into the world.
What are the phases of the flu virus? I thought you’d never ask. Burstology now presents a description of its phases, inspired by coverage in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. You might even want to print and save it for the huge reading pile you’ll need if you get the flu
Phases of Influenza
If only an alarm could sound when the fateful event occurs. Particles of the highly infectious flu virus enter your respiratory tract through your nose, mouth or eye. Tiny droplets containing the virus could be in the air even if no one is coughing or sneezing.
The person with the flu only needs to breathe or talk in order to leave behind particles of flu virus in the air, according to recent research. The particles hang suspended for minutes or hours.
You can infect yourself with the flu and never realize it. Another, though less likely, way to get the flu is to touch a contaminated surface, then touch your mouth or some other potential point of entry. Regardless of how you catch the flu, on Day 1 you do not yet know you have it.
The flu virus begins to take over cells and spread through your respiratory tract, which now swollen and inflamed. The microscopic virus that’s wreaking this havoc consists of a core that holds its genetic material. An outer layer bears protein bumps that help it lock onto your cells and invade them.
Hijacked cells can produce thousands of new virus particles. With every cough, sneeze, breath, or word uttered, the particles spray out by the millions, ready for the next person to breathe them in.
Think of this image the next time you consider going to work with an infectious illness.
The virus then moves into your bloodstream and continues to replicate, taking over more cells and using them to create more virus. At this point, you may be infected and contagious. Yet, other than some minor symptoms, you probably don’t know you have the flu. But you are a health hazard to the people around you, as in a science-fiction story of the end times.
This is when most of us experience a sense of doom, as the vague symptoms of the previous days become so clear-cut you can no longer deny it. You have influenza. You know this because you are experiencing the classic symptoms, like sore throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, muscle aches, fever, chills and an increased ability to tolerate daytime TV dramas.
If you act quickly, see a doctor, and begin taking anti-flu prescription medication within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms, you have a crack at reducing the duration and severity of your martyrdom.
You are in the weeds. Can anyone find you? In your delirium, you are convinced there is a pill that cures the flu, if only you could find it. Wrong.
The best advice of the best medical minds in the 21st century is, drink lots of fluids, rest, and eat fresh produce to invigorate the immune system. Is it me, or does this advice sound sound like it could be from the Middle Ages?
The things you enjoy? Don’t do them. No working out, because it’ll raise your body temperature even further. Avoid dehydration by skipping the coffee in the morning and the cocktail at night.
At this point, you may resolve to self-treat, rushing to the drug shore, grabbing pain relievers to lower the fever, decongestants to reduce stuffiness, expectorants to loosen the congestion in your lungs, and cough drops for the same reason everybody else does: It’s an excuse to eat candy. The cashier announces the total, deepening your misery.
Hope peeks through the dark clouds that have become your life. It is the sign you’ve been waiting for. Your immune system has finally decided to do its job, producing the antibodies you need to wrestle the virus to the ground and make it say uncle.
Beware of having what feels like a relapse after getting past the worst of the flu or days after feeling better. Doctors say it’s probably a bacterial infection, even pneumonia. Bacteria can seize the chance flourish after the virus has damaged lung tissue. Consult your healthcare provider at once. Any treatment should start within 48 hours.
Barring complications, you gradually start to feel vaguely human, maybe even capable of work or school. The first time you try resume your old life, the remnants of the flu slap you down.
You are still tired, probably still coughing, and you’ll experience these truly boring after-effects for, oh, another couple of days. Or, if you’re me, you’ll endure another couple of weeks of fatigue.
“Are you over the flu?” my friend asks.
“I’m getting there,” I reply cheerfully, then blow my cover with a room-clearing coughing.
If you’ve had the flu but didn’t experience it as a time of extreme boredom, check with your doctor. You may have been in a coma.
There’s nothing funny about the flu itself, of course. Thousands die from it each year. But you didn’t. And remember, what didn’t kill you made you stronger. You now have immunity from the flu virus that laid you low. That’s not boring. That’s a rare thing: justice.
What isn’t just is the fact that you caught the flu at all, right?
A dirty little secret about the flu is that some sufferers are contagious longer than the average bear.
If you catch the flu, you are most contagious in the first three to four days after the illness begins, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. The cruelest part of the equation is that is that some otherwise healthy adults may be able to infect others starting one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Being a hermit starts to look good.
To avoid flu patients, assume that everybody is one. Some just don’t know it yet.
If you are symptomatic, stay home and out of sight from flu-phobes. Remember, there’s no one becomes a pariah faster than a person who starts sneezing and coughing during flu season.
It’s a bit of a judgement call as to when you’re fit to rejoin society without the fear of people pointing and shouting “Unclean.”
Children have it tougher, holding onto the illness longer, having harsher symptoms, and staying contagious as long as a week and a half
The reason the flu throws kids for more of a loop is that this may be the first time they’ve had it. As a result, their bodies have not had an opportunity to build up antibodies. The upshot is that the virus is able to build up in their bodies to a higher concentration than in an adult who has built up some immunity from multiple exposures to the virus
Now, don’t hold me to these day counts, as if the flu virus followed a strict schedule. The numbers are estimates. But you knew that, right?
Patients with chronic conditions, a compromised immune system or who are more likely to develop complications in general are likely to spend more than their fair share of time with this bad boy.
For this group, the flu can be very dangerous because of its tendency to make existing conditions worse and lead to pneumonia and other potentially fatal illnesses.
Cold or Flu?
To make matters more ambiguous, many patients have a tough time determining whether they have a cold or the flu. The question is especially challenging when you’re just coming down with the illness.
One reason these close cousins can impersonate each other, at least at first, is that the list of symptoms overlaps, though a cold has fewer of them.
Another telltale sign of which illness you have is is how quickly the symptoms develop, with the flu announcing itself sooner.
If you have a cold, you may experience sneezing, runny nose, a dry cough and nasal symptoms, In contrast, flu symptoms add another layer of misery, which may additionally include fever, chills, a productive cough, muscle pain, fatigue and sore throat.
If anything positive can be said about the flu, it’s that it can sometimes be prevented with a shot. If you get the flu anyway, symptoms may be milder and antiviral medications are available to ease the course of the illness. Colds have neither a vaccine nor a cure.
Getting vaccinated against the flu is still the single best way to prevent it. But it’s not 100 percent effective. Some years, it isn’t even 50 percent.
You could add a few lifestyle changes to your flu-avoidance agenda:
- If you live in a climate where home heating is blasting most of the time and dries out the air, you might consider acquiring a humidifier. Air with a humidity of 30 to 50 percent is less hospital to virus. Anything drier helps extend the life of the virus.
- Keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
- Limit your alcohol intake because of its dehydrating effects.
- You’ve heard it before, but it’s still important to wash your hands often, for at least 20 seconds each time.
- In between hand washings, use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoid accidentally transferring virus particles to your system by training yourself not to touch your nose, mouth and eyes.
Even if you follow all of the best flu-avoidance advice, you still might catch it. If that happens, make it a priority to get a prescription for an antiviral medication right away. The medication becomes even more of a priority if if you develop a fever, cough, and body aches.
Antiviral medicines may reduce the severity of the flu if you start taking them within 48 hours of your first symptoms.
Besides taking Tamiflu, or whatever antiviral is being recommended against the currently circulating strains of flu, resign yourself to resting and downing lots of fluids. If your flu symptoms include fever and aches, take acetaminophen (Tylenol or its generic); naproxen (Aleve), or ibuprofen (Advil)
Other risk factors that make antiviral medication a top priority are:
- Being 65 or older,
- Being obese,
- Having a compromised immune system,
- Having a chronic health concern
Most people can recover from the flu with home treatment. But call your doc if you have difficulty breathing, have pain in your chest or abdomen, experience dizziness or confusion, or have severe or prolonged vomiting.
A doctor should also get involved if your child comes down with the flu. For starters, ask your pediatrician about antivirals made especially for kids. The meds are aimed at children who have a severe case of flu or who have chronic health conditions like diabetes, asthma, or heart or lung disease.
DIY advice for people with the flu is provided in admirable detail by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which advises that anyone with the flu:
- Stay home and rest.
- Drink lots of liquids.
- Sneeze or cough into a tissue or the crook of your arm.
Flu cases that don’t require medical attention can be treated effectively at home with a virtual medical tent stocked with flu-fighting supplies and foods:
- Fever reducers like acetaminophen or Ibuprofen, cough drops or cough syrup.
- Drinks like, fruit juices, soda, tea, or fluids with electrolytes, sometimes called sports drinks (avoid caffeine).
- Clear soups, plain crackers, applesauce and other liclear soups, crackers, and applesauce.
- Blankets or other warm covers.
- Medical face masks and disposable gloves for caregivers.
Good karma is yours, or should be, if you take care of someone at home who has the flu. Catching it should not be your reward. Among the guidelines for such angels are:
- Know common symptoms of the flu and at what point it is wise to seek medical care.
- If the patient is running a fever, insist they lie down and rest.
- Allow the flu sufferer to judge which bed covers are needed. A fever, especially a high one, may make the person feel icy cold and want more blankets. I remember having “the chills” when I ran a fever as a kid, teeth chattering and body shaking under a mountain of blankets.
- Encourage your patient to drink as much as possible.
- If the sick person feels hungry, offer light foods. At the beginning of the flu, when fever tends to be highest, fluids are more crucial than food.
- Do not smoke around a sick person.
- Have the sick person gargle.
- Clean your hands before and after caring for a sick person, and after coughing or sneezing. Sick people should clean their hands often, too.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs often spread this way
Call the sick person’s healthcare provider if you observe that he or she:
- Is unable to drink enough fluids. Keep in mind that dark urine or dizziness when standing are signs of dehydration.
- Has a fever of 100 degrees F or more for three days.
- Starts to feel better, then relapses, getting a fever or sore throat again
Immediately go for medical care if someone with the flu:
- Starts wheezing or becomes short of breath.
- Coughs up blood.
- Has pain or pressure in chest when breathing.
- Develops trouble balancing, walking or sitting up, or becomes confused.
Remember, now, you’ll be no good to your patient if you get sick, too. So be sure to take care of your own health.
Isn’t that what they always say? But if you don’t get sick after sacrificing day in and day out for as long as two weeks, then how can you play the martyr? Well, you can’t, but that’s probably a good trade. The flu can be a bad business, even life-threatening, including for people who were relatively healthy beforehand.
But is there really anything you can do as a caregiver? Isn’t it inevitable that you’ll get sick or, at best, the result of good luck if you don’t?
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to avoid getting sick when taking care of your flu patient. So listen up.
If you do the laundry at your house, you’re not going to like this tip, but towels should be used just once, then laundered. In other words paper towels as often as possible. Otherwise, germs will consider the towel a cozy hangout and lurk there until the second use, at which point they attack. So, rule number one is to turn your laundry room into a linen service. Rule number 2, use hot water when laundering towels and linens, and anything else whenever possible.
Sharing is a good thing. Unless someone has the flu, at which point it becomes a bad thing. With a case of flu in the house, it’s time to take all those items you finally learned how to share and stop sharing them.
That means no one uses your computer except you. It also means no sharing of pens, pencils, papers, clothing, sheets, blanks, food and flatware.
In families, one person should be designated to do battle with germs by being the sole caretaker. If there’s no consideration about looking scary to the sick person, it’s probably a good idea to use a specially designed mask capable of screening virus particles when near the patient
Some experts recommend that people who have the flu wear a mask to avoid spreading germs, especially if they must go out in public to seek treatment.
Protective gear should extend to wearing disposable gloves whenever in contact with the patient’s body fluids or contaminated things like tissues. Immediately after removing and tossing the gloves, always wash your hands.
Make sure that your home patient uses disposable tissues instead of a cloth handkerchief. Immediately throw used tissues in a lined trash bin. Remind the patient to cough into a tissue, never their bare hand. If you find yourself lacking a tissue when you need to cough, use your upper arm .
A sobering fact is that the germs that cause the flu could be lingering anywhere within radius of three feet of the sick person. After all of the talk about washing your hands often, could this Burstology blog be complete without hand-washing instructions in excruciating detail ? Of course not, so here goes.
Do you know how to wash your hands properly?
- Wet hands with warm water, apply soap in liquid, bar or powder form.
- Rub hands together with enough force to create a lather.
- Scrub hands and fingers thoroughly. Continue for 20 seconds, or while you imagine singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
- Dry with paper towel or air dryer.
- Use paper towel to turn off faucet and open door, if possible. Toss immediately.
- In the absence of soap and water, use a hand sanitizer.
When there’s a flu patient in the house, it helps to know how to go beyond cleaning to disinfecting. What’s the difference? Cleaning can remove germs from objects and surfaces in the home. Disinfecting kills the germs.
Cleaning with soap and water to remove dirt and most germs is usually enough. But, when it comes to flu germs, added protection may be had by disinfecting. If you plan to use a household cleaner, read the label to ensure that it kills influenza viruses
You may create your own disinfectant by combining 1⁄4 cup of chlorine bleach with a gallon of hot water. Wear waterproof gloves and whatever you do, don’t splash the bleach on yourself!
Killing the germs on heavily used items in your home, like the TV remote, calls for a commercial or homemade disinfectant. Among the commerci
Good things to disinfect include toys, telephones, light switches, door knobs, handles, drawer pulls, faucet and toilet handles, refrigerator handles and stove knobs, plus other surfaces people frequently touch such as tabletops, counters and chair backs. To kill germs, the product must remain on the surface for a certain amount of time, like three to five minutes. Read the label for specifics.
It’s worth the effort of doing some special cleaning for a week two if it helps you escape the flu. Imagine how much harder it is to keep things disinfected in a college dorm.
Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are told not to panic if a roommate comes down with the flu.
“Influenza is contagious,” Medical Chief of Medicine Dr. Howard Heller told MIT News. ”But not everyone who has been exposed to the virus becomes ill, and having a sick roommate does not mean that you will get sick, too—especially if you take precautions now.”
In addition to the precautions given to the general public, some that apply especially in a college dorm include.
How to handle a germ-bearing roommate
-Be helpful but be safe. Don’t hesitate to help your roommate during an illness. You might offer to run errands. Just avoid close contact. If you are super-kind and wash their linens, try not to hug the dirty laundry. Wash towels and linens in hot water and dry them on a hot setting. Wash your hands right after handling dirty linens.
-Some students with the flu might relapse in their normal good behavior of covering coughs and sneezes and washing their hands often. So be prepared to remind them, in a nice way, of course.
-The sick roommate should also wear a specially designed mask any time he or she might come within six feet of others or when using common areas, like the bathroom. If your sick roommate just won’t get with the program of covering their coughs and sneezes, consider wearing a mask when you are near.
-Don’t share glasses, water bottles or utensils.
-Again, your efforts to avoid the flu will test your powers of diplomacy. But everyone could use a little practice in that area. So, find a polite way to avoid spending time with friends who are sick, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. With a roommate, you might consider drawing an imaginary line down the center of the room and suggesting that each of you stay on your own side. If you, like me, shared a room as a kid, it’ll bring you back to your childhood.
If students can learn how to avoid getting the flu when it strikes their dorm or apartment, they can always say they learned something useful in college.
The flu has been with us for so long, there’s plenty of wisdom out there about how to handle it. Some of it’s even effective. What advice would you offer a friend during flu season? Please share it in a comment.