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)
- 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
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!).
Andersen, F. 2011. Viruses and bacteria. NetDoctor.co.uk. <http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/health_advice/facts/virusbacteria.htm> March 08, 2013.
Ben-Joseph, E.P. 2013. Influenza (flu). KidsHealth.org. <http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/lung/flu.html> March 07, 2013.
Davidson, M.W. 2005. The influenza (flu) virus. Micro.Magnet.fsu.edu <http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/viruses/influenzavirus.html> March 08, 2013.
Government of Alberta. 2012. Influenza – commonly called “the flu”. Health.Alberta.ca. <http://www.health.alberta.ca/health-info/influenza.html> March 07, 2013.