This year’s influenza is particularly terrible. According to a map of influenza activity released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the H3N2 virus is spreading very quickly. Pharmacies are running out of over-the-counter and prescription flu remedies.

The current flu vaccine appears to be mismatched to the virus. In Australia, where the flu season starts earlier, it proved to be effective only by 10 percent. Hospitals all over the country have reported full emergency rooms and the flu season is just beginning. It is expected to last until May.

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What to know about this year’s flu. Image credit: Vanderbilt News

Prepare for the flu season

Flu is mostly spread by droplets in the airs. Therefore, if a person is 3 to 6 feet away from someone with the virus, the person is likely to inhale the germs exhaled by the infected person. The virus then latches onto the mucous membranes of the nose, throat and bronchial tubes. Then the virus takes over the epithelial cells in the mucous membranes controlling their metabolic machinery to create more and more virus, infecting thus adjacent cells. This is the initial phase of the infection, and it takes one to four days.

Then, the virus is spread and takes control of the respiratory tract. The body naturally tries to fight this threat by sending its immunologic troops in an inflammatory response, releasing proteins that are called interferons. The interferons are sent to the bloodstream and the mucous, making the cytokines, another type of proteins, join in the battle. These protein soldiers – as Dr. Schaffner calls them – circulate all over the body.

“The more you inhale, the shorter the incubation period. In the beginning, you don’t feel sick. You don’t even know it’s there,” said Dr. William Schaffner, who is an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. “Paradoxically, our own soldiers created for the fight are what cause us to have symptoms. War creates damage and so you get fever and a headache and muscular aches and pains,” also said Dr. Schaffner.

Dr. Schaffner says that the symptoms we suffer when we have the flu are produced by the battle fought by our immunologic system against the virus. These early symptoms are the ones that distinguish the flu from a regular cold.

The pains and the fever also send another signal, and then it is time for people to start drinking a lot of fluids. This allows the reduction of headaches, and it helps the proteins soldiers because they are circulating through the fluids of the body. Dehydration hinders their movement. Therefore, it is common for people to want soup and watery citric fruits when they are sick.

During that time, people can notice that their urine goes darker and that they will feel less need to go to the bathroom. Doctors say people with the flu must drink at least one cup of liquids every hour avoiding caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.

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Over-the-counter flu remedies are running out in pharmacies. Image credit: Five Stars urgent care

The real benefit of over-the-counter medication

When the virus is getting weaker, people start feeling less pain, but there is still inflammation in the throat because that is where the battle is still taking place. Dr. Schaffner says that people start coughing and sneezing to clear out what’s left of the virus.

That is why over-the-counter remedies are not always the best option because suppressing cough and drying the sinuses is not the best idea to get rid of the virus.

“Certainly there is the thought that you don’t want to suppress a cough too much or dry out your nasal passages because you want to get rid of the infection,” said Dr. Tara Vijayan, “There’s a balance for sure. I don’t think you should suffer unnecessarily, but you need to weigh the true benefit,” added Dr. Vijayan, an assistant clinical professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine.

People should also be aware, that even if they want to lay and rest when they are sick, laying flat all the while can be dangerous because it collapses the lungs inhibiting people from coughing efficiently and therefore, trapping the bacteria in the respiratory tract. If the virus is there long enough to destroy enough cells in the bronchial tubes, then it might create a way for bacteria to access the lungs and life-threatening problems such as pneumonia can come up.

Dr. Schaffner explains that when the lungs are vertical rather than horizontal, “you’re able to breathe deeply and freely and you’re able to cough out any inadvertent material, even microscopic bacteria, that get down into bronchial tubes.”

During this season, healthy people with the virus can practice self-care; however, those who have a vulnerable immune system must consult their doctors. The CDC recommends those who are immunocompromised to take the antiviral drug oseltamivir, which is sold under the brand Tamiflu since it apparently reduces the likelihood of death.

Source: The New York Times