Cold season likes to run its course all year round, but its angry cousin, the flu, likes to kick your butt from late fall to early spring. Interestingly, flu season starts in the fall and goes until spring in both hemispheres, so it ranges from October until March in the North and March until October in the South.
While they are both contagious respiratory diseases, the common cold and flu are caused by very different viruses. The flu is caused by the influenza virus. It would actually be correct to say that influences viruses cause the flu, as there are so many different strains of the flu, the virus we suffer is actually different every single year. Influenza types A, B, and C are the types of flu that affect human beings (although A and B are the most common).
The flu is an airborne virus, meaning that you can get it being in the room with an infected person who does not cover their mouth when they sneeze or couch. If you inhale the virus germs, there’s a good chance that you will get the virus. The flu virus can also stay alive on surfaces for 2-8 hours. This means that is you touch something that a flu-infected person has touched, and then touch your nose or mouth, there is a chance you could ingest the germs and catch the flu.
One of the difficulties in avoiding the flu is that a person who has been infected can be contagious before they even show signs of having the flu. The incubation period is one to five days, meaning they are contagious for that entire period without even knowing it. Once the symptoms hit, the person can be contagious for up to 5 days while suffering from the symptoms. The lesson here: if you are sick, stay home from work and school.
We all know what types of symptoms you will enjoy is the flu hit: runny nose, fever, aching muscles, headache, sore throat, and a host of charming intestinal symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.
Other than locking your self in a hermetically sealed chamber for the months of October through March, your best recourse to fighting off the flu is to get a vaccination. While we used to just ride out the flu, several factors have emerged that has led to a push to vaccinate the masses. Every year, up to 20% of the North American population gets the flu. Aside from economic factors such as loss of productivity from people missing work, there are the more serious issues of people who are hospitalized from complications due to the flu, sometimes leading to death.
Some complications that can develop include pneumonia, dehydration, and the exacerbation of existing medical conditions like respiratory problems (asthma), metabolic conditions (diabetes) and heart conditions. Flu fatalities are almost always in patients whose systems are already weakened by age or a failing immunity system.
Flu vaccines come out starting in early September and high-risk groups are the first to get the shot. Since there is always a limited amount of the vaccine, these groups get priority. The high-risk group includes the following:
People over 65
Health care providers who work with high risk groups (in nursing homes, extended care facilities, day care)
- People with compromised immune systems due to other conditions
- Pregnant women
- Children between the ages of 6 and 3 months
- Any person (over 6 months) who has a compromised respiratory system
- Anyone over 6 months who has been treated for the following in the past year: diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease.
If your body is weakened in any way due to chronic or recent illness, you are more likely to catch the flu virus and you are also more likely to suffer for longer once you have it.
There are certain people who should not get the flu vaccine: those who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs) the vaccine is grown in eggs); those who have had an allergic reaction in the past; children under 6 months; people who previously developed Guillain-Barré syndrome after their last vaccination; and people who are already suffering form a virus (just wait until you are better to get the vaccine).
There are two types of vaccinations that you can get. The injection, or “flu shot,” contains a dead version of the strains of influenza that are most common that year. The nasal spray contains live, weakened virus cells. When your body recognizes the flu cells, it will build up immunity (antibodies) against those particular strains. You cannot catch the fly form these shots, as the dosage of the virus is just enough for the body to react.
A flu vaccination works for only one year, as every year you are vaccinated against the strains of the flu that are flying about that year. Every year flu strains mutate to try and beat the antibodies you have built up. It’s a cunning little disease. The flu vaccination will not protect you from all kinds of flu, however, only the most popular strains of that year.
Avian Flu Panic
The flu has been in our headlines a lot as of late, mostly owing to headlines about a possible “avian flu pandemic.” Here is a brief overview of what the fuss is about. A pandemic is an epidemic that has international ramifications. It crosses borders and it is particularly virulent. There have been three major flu pandemics in the past century, including the 1918-19 Spanish flu, the 1957 Asian flu, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. The most lethal of these was the Spanish flu, which killed up to 100 million people.
Avian flu is an A-type flu that occurs naturally among bird populations. While wild birds carry the avian flu, it affects domestic birds such as chickens, ducks and turkey more seriously, sometimes leading to death. Currently there has been a spike in a virulent strain of a certain type of avian flu (specifically, the H5N1 virus) that has infected millions of birds in Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe.
The risk of transferring the virus to humans is relatively low, however, there are cases in which the virus has transferred to human who work come into direct contact with infected birds’ fecal matter. You cannot catch the avian flu from eating contaminated meat, as long as it is cooked thoroughly. As the virus stands right now, you also cannot catch the avian flu from another human being who has it. As far as researchers know, you can only contract the H5N1 virus from infected birds’ fecal matter.
The concern currently is that the H5N1 virus is particularly virulent, killing many more bids than ever before. Inter-species viruses are uncommon, but this strain of avian flu has affected more humans than any other known. According to the World Health organization website, that is still only 100 cases since 1997. That is still low, but it is showing that it is possible for inter-species contamination between birds and humans if the humans come into direct contact with an infected bird’s fecal matter. Or, I suppose if they eat the bird raw.
What the WHO and disease-control institutions are worried about is if the virus mutates so that it can be passed from human to human, we currently do not have a vaccine for it. The flu is vicious, and has a death rate of about 50% (remembering that there are very few cases on which to base this number).
If you are worried about the avian flu and just want to get clear information about it, visit the World Health Organization website, and your country’s website for disease control and research. While it is a concern, and countries and citizen need to be aware and prepared, don’t get scared until you explore the facts yourself.
In the meantime, get vaccinated for the ones we can, and stay away from sneezing co-workers!