Sunday morning arrives and your head is aching. You feel like you’ve been blindsided by a Range Rover. Your hall-mates give you unending grief; long gone are the days when they offered sympathy to the hung over. What they don’t know is that you went to the movies last night and didn’t drink a drop. What showed up and knocked you down? The flu.
Many people mistakenly believe the flu involves a storm in the stomach. If you’re spending most of your sick time praying to the porcelain god (and you haven’t been drinking) you most likely have gastroenteritis, commonly called “stomach flu” but in reality no relation to the influenza virus, a.k.a. the flu.
The influenza virus is one of a changing group of viruses that causes upper respiratory infections, much like a cold or acute bronchitis. Unlike the sly cold, however, the flu arrives as subtly as a freight train, causing head and muscle aches, chills, fever (up to 104° is common), fatigue and dry cough. Right from the start you’re utterly spent. After a few days, these harsher symptoms fade and are usually replaced with more cold-like sensations such as congestion and sore throat.
Insidiously, the influenza virus sneaks into your body through the mucus membranes in your eyes, nose, and mouth. The beastly bug resembles a sphere with spikes sticking out, little thorns made up of proteins called antigens. After arriving uninvited, the antigens begin to mock your immune cells, which respond to the taunting by sending sniper proteins — antibodies — to fight off the virus.
Every strain of flu virus has slightly different antigens, meaning your immune cells must create a new slew of antibodies every time a different strain invades. Fortunately, the immune cells never forget a foe; if a flu strain shows up to wreak havoc a second time, the antibody pattern is pulled from the memory bank and quickly replicated.
Up to 50% of the US population is stricken by the flu every year, and people in highly concentrated areas (read: classrooms, dorms, bars) are more likely to fall prey. However, there are several approaches you can take to avoid the virus. The most common involves getting a shot.
The flu shot, which changes every year to match the most recent antigen patterns of the virus, is offered in most communities. Because your body takes six to eight weeks to respond, and because the peak US flu season runs December through March, vaccines are usually offered between October and December. But do you need it?
Usually the flu shot will protect against serious complications, but you can still catch the bug and suffer the symptoms. In general, doctors don’t promote the shot among the healthy student population. If you have a condition which puts you at risk (heart, lung, kidney, or blood conditions, asthma, diabetes, immune deficiency, anemia) or if you work among a high-risk population (elderly, people with any of the conditions just listed) you should consider getting one. And if you are one of those extra-careful types and want one anyway, it certainly won’t kill you. Flu shots may, however, cause redness or soreness around the injection area and may also cause a day or two of flu-like symptoms.
One important note: Flu vaccines contain egg protein. If you are allergic to eggs, consult a doctor before receiving a vaccination.
Not Into Needles?
Aside from the flu shot, there are several other steps you can take to steer clear of the flu or mitigate its effects lest you succumb. If you listened to your germ-fearing mother, you’re probably a strict follower of the number one flu prevention guideline: wash your hands. “The best way to prevent the flu is to practice good hygiene,” says Jake Booker, a North Carolina physician. “Washing your hands frequently, especially after being around sick people, is a key means to prevent transmission.”
Upping your intake of vitamins, herbs, and minerals isn’t a bad idea either. Taking echinacea is believed by many to be a helpful preventive measure, although you should rotate intervals of intake with intervals of no-take; steady doses can be bad for the immune system. Garlic (in any form — pills save your significant other from the horrors of garlic breath) can also boost your immune system and might even kill the virus. Vitamin C is also a popular pill to pop, though too much popping can lead to poop, i.e. diarrhea.
If the virus does try to sneak into your body, it’s up to mucus to flush it out before it invades. Help your mucus do its job by staying hydrated throughout flu season. Fluids are also a must if you do catch the bug. Drink, drink, drink. One catch: your favorites — caffeinated soda, coffee, and alcohol — are off limits. And trash the cigs. All four contribute to dehydration. Hot tea or water with lemon and honey are a wise choice, plus they help if your throat is sore. Any hot beverage without caffeine will move the mucus faster than a cold beverage due to the presence of steam. Chicken soup, mom’s or otherwise, will also get you steamy, as will frequent hot showers or a vaporizer/humidifier.
Other ways to fight the good fight:
Acetometaphin/ibuprofen: Get down, get down, get down — get your fever down, that is.
Antihistamine: One good thing about the flu is that it usually doesn’t mean a runny nose, but if you do get snotty, antihistamines can help. Also good for watery eyes.
Decongestant: Can help your stuffy self, but limit use to 1 to 3 days. After that, it’s ineffective and may cause a rebound in symptoms a few days later.
Exercise: If you have a fever or your muscles ache, don’t.
Expectorant: If your cough is wet, this will loosen phlegm.
Medicines: Two flu meds, amantadine (Symmetrel) and remantadine (Flumadine), can both offer some protection against the most common Type A flu virus and, if taken within 48 hours of onset, shorten the duration of the infection. These meds are not effective against the rarer Type B. A newer medication, Relenza, has been shown in some studies to shorten duration and reduce complications of both A and B.
Nasal Strips: Slap one on your nose before bed, it may help you breathe with ease.
Sleep: At last, a valid excuse to skip Calculus. Especially necessary if you have a fever.
Suck: Hard candy, lozenges, cough drops all feel nice if your throat doesn’t.
Suppressant: Both you and your roommate will give this one a thumbs up when it reduces that dry, hacking cough.
Warm salt water: Gargling soothes the throat, snorting wets the nose (rather than use the salt shaker and the sink, you can buy a saline spray at the drugstore).
And remember, while the flu may drive you insane for a week, it’s not going to complicate your life for much longer. It can, however, lead to other, more serious conditions like pneumonia. Get to a doctor if your high fever persists or if you experience significantly swollen glands, severe facial pain, cough with heavy and/or yellow-green mucus, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or protracted body aches. Otherwise, just hunker down and let your immune system do its job.
Note: Remember, this article is not a substitute for a doctor. Always, Always go to the nearest clinic and follow the doc’s advice to the T. Then come back and post in the comments here.