The Flu

The flu, also called influenza, seems to be a worry for all mothers, mine being no exception.  Let’s take a look at the flu to get a better idea as to what it is, how it works, what we can do about it and why our mamas get so worked up about it.

What is Influenza?

Influenza is a type of virus. If you can remember high school biology, viruses weren’t really considered living things just because they can’t sustain themselves. They need a host, so an animal, human or even bacteria, in order for their DNA to be replicated. Influenza in particular is a virus that targets the nose, throat and lungs, which is why it sometimes resembles the common cold.

So how do we get infected?

Viruses are sneaky little buggers – they spread really easily. They can spread in the air, by touch (especially when touching food with dirty hands), or by fluids from the body like blood, saliva or semen.

When they finally enter our body, they have the ability to attach to our cells. See, our cells are similar to landing platforms for the viruses. When they land, they then inject their DNA into our cells in the same way a needle injects vaccines into our blood. This DNA is then replicated (copied) by our own proteins, then more viruses are generated. Eventually, the viruses inside are cell leave the cell by lysing (splitting) it, and the viruses spread to other cells to inject their DNA and make even more viruses. It’s literally a divide and conquer strategy for the viruses.

Different types of Influenza

There are three different types, or strains,  of influenza viruses: A, B and C. Influenza A is the pandemic-causing strain that can affect every living thing. It’s not picky, as long as the organism has the mechanisms to replicate DNA. Influenza A is the most common strain because of its ability to be replicated in so many different hosts. Influenza B only really affects humans, and is what we usually see in local outbreaks. Influenza C is the strain that no one really pays attention to because it’s docile; we don’t really get symptoms if infected with this strain.

What are symptoms of the flu?

The symptoms of influenza infection are all a result of your immune system trying to stop these viruses from taking over your body. Symptoms usually show around 1-2 days after being infected.

Some general symptoms are:

  • Fever (of 38°C /100°F or higher)
  • Cough
  • Weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Aches in lower back and/or legs
  • Diarrhea or Vomiting (in some cases)

The symptoms can last from 5 days to 2 weeks usually.

(Some of these symptoms and how they help our immune system will be discussed in later posts.)

Tips to coping with the flu

There’s not much you can do when you’ve been infected with the influenza virus – it’s really just up to your immune system to kill the virus. But there are ways to help yourself feel better and perhaps recover faster:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Rest! Get a lot of sleep and take it easy. Your body’s running a marathon to help you feel better, so you don’t need to.
  • Consider taking ibuprofen or acetoaminophen (found in Advil, Tylenol and other pain relievers – you can see them listed as ingredients!) to reduce the pain caused from some of the symptoms
  • Wear layers – it’s easier to deal with the alterations between chills and the fever if you can just take a layer off or add one

Vaccines!

Let’s talk flu shots now, which are offered usually between September and mid-November. Every medical professional I’ve encountered recommends getting the flu shot, and for good reason.

Viruses are not only little buggers because of their ability to spread easily and hijack our cells, but they also have the ability to mutate easily. If you’ve been vaccinated for “the flu” one year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your immune system is prepared for the flu the next year; the immune system will no longer be able to recognize the virus because it’s changed. Let’s say, for the purposes of understanding this concept, the virus gets plastic surgery done every year and the immune system sees it as being a new antigen.

So, the reason why it’s recommended you get the flu shot every year is because they change the vaccinations to prepare your body for all of the strains that are potentially lurking about.

And that, in a very large nutshell, is the influenza virus a.k.a. the flu. Don’t let yourself get confused between this infection and other infections that are labelled as flus (like the stomach flu, which we’ll talk about next week!).

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Andersen, F. 2011. Viruses and bacteria. NetDoctor.co.uk. <http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/health_advice/facts/virusbacteria.htm&gt; March 08, 2013.

Ben-Joseph, E.P. 2013. Influenza (flu). KidsHealth.org. <http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/lung/flu.html&gt; March 07, 2013.

Davidson, M.W. 2005. The influenza (flu) virus. Micro.Magnet.fsu.edu <http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/viruses/influenzavirus.html&gt; March 08, 2013.

Government of Alberta. 2012. Influenza – commonly called “the flu”. Health.Alberta.ca. <http://www.health.alberta.ca/health-info/influenza.html&gt; March 07, 2013.

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Vaccines

Remember that scare in 2009, when the swine flu (H1N1) broke out and everyone was rushing to clinics? They were worried about this new, terrifying virus and hurried to get the vaccinations that would protect them from it. And the vaccines did just that; with the help of the H1N1 vaccinations, 300 lives were saved, and roughly 1 million illnesses and 6000 hospitalizations were prevented. But what are vaccines and how do they help us?

What are vaccines?

Vaccines are preparations of agents that look like disease-causing microorganisms. These agents are considered antigens, which basically means they are something that is foreign, or unfamiliar, to our immune system. The antigens in vaccines are usually just parts of a microorganism, a dead microorganisms, or live microorganisms that have been altered to be harmless.

How do vaccines work?

The purpose of using vaccines is to familiarize your immune system to microorganisms you have yet to encounter so that it will be able to learn how to recognize this new antigen and how to attack it so that it doesn’t cause further damage to your body.  Since the vaccines don’t contain the real, health-threatening organisms, when you’re injected with the vaccine, you won’t show any symptoms.

Vaccines are basically a test run for your immune system to learn how to protect you from different dangerous organisms. The cells of the microorganisms (in the vaccines and in real life) have proteins on its membranes that will allow your immune system to recognize them. Your immune system will recognize these injected cells as antigens and try to figure out a way to attack them. Different cells have different properties, so there are several ways for your immune system to dispose of these foreign agents.

Your immune system will eventually figure out a way to destroy the antigens and will keep this whole trial in its memory. It will remember two things:

  • What it found during the test run: the cells of the microorganism, any particular proteins on the cell surface, etc.
  • How it dealt with the organism to ensure your safety

It then applies that knowledge when you’re exposed to the real organisms. This artificial immunity is long-lasting, which is why it’s preferred for new dangerous diseases.

Your doctor provides you with a list of vaccinations you should be getting at certain ages, it’s in your best interest to make sure you’ve gotten them all!

Roos, R. 2013. CDC: Pandemic vaccine prevented 1 million cases, 300 deaths. CIDRAP.umn.edu. <http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/influenza/swineflu/news/feb0113panvax.html&gt; February 28, 2013

Seeley, R.R., Stevens, T.D., and Tate, P. 2008. Anatomy and Physiology (8th ed.). pp. 818, 1012. New York: McGraw-Hill.