Flu Facts and Treatment

Influenza was once thought to be due to 'influences in the atmosphere', thus giving the disease its name, but it is now known to be one of many diseases that are caused by a virus. Medical science has drugs that can kill bacteria, funguses and microscopic animals that may enter the body, but it is unable to kill viruses. Viruses are barely alive and are therefore very difficult to kill. They are self- replicating crystals that are so small they cannot be seen by the most powerful light microscope. Bacteria on the other hand are microscopic animals, and they can be killed by antibiotics. The only effective treatment for the flu is prevention by an annual influenza vaccination. Some viral diseases, such as measles, can be prevented by a once in a lifetime shot, but the influenza virus has the most unfortunate ability to change its form slightly every year, so the resistance developed by the body to one form does not prevent infection by a marginally different form. Thus the flu shot has to be an annual event, with the contents of the vaccine varying from year to year depending on the types of influenza about. The vaccine gives more than 80% protection from contracting influenza. Unfortunately it does not prevent the common cold, and many people who complain that their flu shot has not worked are suffering from a cold caused by yet another group of viruses.

Influenza was, and still can be, a very serious disease. Millions of people died from it in severe epidemics earlier this century, but deaths are now rare except in the elderly and debilitated. Asthmatics, those with other chronic chest and heart conditions, the elderly, and patients with debilitating illnesses are at particular risk and should always be vaccinated. Healthcare workers, essential industry workers, and those in regular contact with the public are other groups who should seriously consider having an annual vaccination.

Flu is spread by microscopic droplets in a cough or sneeze from one person to another. The droplets may be inhaled by a passer-by, and the millions of virus particles it contains can settle in the nose and throat and start reproducing rapidly. Eventually there will be uncountable trillions of the virus particles, and they will cause the tissue to become inflamed, swell up and secrete excess amounts of phlegm. The runny nose, stuffed sinuses, painful throat, headache, tiredness, nausea, fever and a dozen other symptoms then attack you. Over several days the body builds up immunity to the virus particles and develops specific cells to fight and destroy the infection, killing all the viruses and curing the patient. In the meantime, the victim suffers.

Rest and time are the most effective cures, and aspirin in high doses is very useful. Other medicines to stop the cough, ease the stuffy nose and relieve pain may be useful. If symptoms persist, a doctor should be consulted. There are also some tablets called amantadine available on prescription that will prevent some forms of flu while they are being taken. They are useful to prevent a wife contracting flu while her husband is suffering at home in bed, or similar circumstances.

The one good thing about influenza is that once you have had it this year, you are unlikely to contract it again until next year. Better still, be prepared, and have a flu shot in autumn rather than suffer later.

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