The flu kills when a defective immune system allows bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, to enter the lungs. To illustrate how dangerous influenza can be, during the 19l8 flu pandemic—also called Spanish Flu—approximately 20 to 40% of the worldwide population became ill. During two pre-vaccine sweeps around the world in 1918-1919, an estimated 50 million people died, including 675,000 in the United States. Thankfully, Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis developed a flu vaccine in 1938.
It is not possible to predict what the flu season will be like, since the timing, severity, and length of the season varies from year to year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, Georgia. The flu most commonly peaks in the U.S. between December and February; however, seasonal flu can begin in October and last until May.
Flu viruses are constantly changing, so new strains can appear each year. The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older. Since there are many different viruses, the seasonal flu vaccine is designed to protect against the main flu viruses that research suggests will cause the most illnesses.
Tom Frieden, M.D., of the CDC, told CNN/TV that the flu shot is less effective this year because the current virus has mutated and does not mesh with the virus that is coming down the pike. “We could have a season that is more severe than most, with more hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. Lisa Thebner, M.D., a New York pediatrician, added, “The vaccine isn’t perfect, but it’s the best protection we have.”
Frieden said that, if you have flu symptoms, it’s extremely important to take antiviral medications as soon as possible. Tamiflu and Relenza are considered most effective in reducing complications when given soon after symptoms appear. For a more current evaluation of the situation, ask your health-care provider for advice.
In addition to getting a flu shot, here are other ways of avoiding getting sick, according to the CDC:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick when you are sick. Keep your distance from others.
- If possible, stay home from work, school, etc., to avoid contaminating others.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing.
- Wash your hands. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based rub.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs are spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs, and then touch their face.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work, or school, especially when someone is ill.
- Get plenty of sleep.
Here are symptoms of the flu:
- A temperature of 100 degrees F. or higher, or feeling feverish. However, not everyone has a fever.
- A cough or sore throat
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Headaches or body aches
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, especially in children
For an excellent history of the 1918 pandemic, read “The Great Influenza,” by John M. Barry, Penguin Books, New York, 2004.
There are over one billion colds in the United States each year, and colds are the most common reason for children to miss school and parents to miss work. Colds are caused by over 200 different viruses, reported the American Lung Association, Chicago, Illinois. Rhinovirus is the most common cold virus, with others being coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Colds usually last a week, but some can last longer, especially in children, the elderly, and those in poor health. Adults develop two to four colds annually, usually between September and May. However, children can suffer six to eight colds a year.
Colds are highly contagious, and are often spread when droplets of fluid that contain a cold virus are transferred by touch or inhaled. Between one and three days after a cold virus has entered the body, symptoms such as the following appear:
- Runny nose
- Weakened senses to taste and smell
- Scratchy throat
- Infants and young children may develop a fever.
- Smokers generally have more symptoms than non-smokers.
To possibly avoid a cold, try the following procedure:
- Avoid close contact with those who have a cold, especially during the first few days when they are most likely to spread an infection.
- Wash your hands after touching someone who has a cold, after touching an object they have touched, and after blowing your nose. Wash toys when children have a cold.
- Keep fingers from your nose and eyes to avoid infecting yourself with cold virus particles you may have picked up.
- Put a second towel in the bathroom for healthy people to use.
- Do not let the humidity in your environment change so that the sinuses do not become dry.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Throw a tissue away and wash your hands.
- Stay away from those who are most vulnerable, especially those with asthma or other chronic lung diseases, or at least limit close contact.
Common complications of a cold include:
- Usually severe cold symptoms
- High fever
- Ear pain
- Sinus headache
- Cough that gets worse as other symptoms subside
- Flare-up of other chronic lung problems, such as asthma
Your health-care provider can provide a number of nutritional suggestions on how to prevent a cold or flu, or at least shorten their duration.