TAKE 5: Influenza — what it is, and how to stay well

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

This week, we have an extended Take 5 with Dr. Robert Patterson, owner and medical director of Back to Basics Medical Practice PLLC about influenza and how to avoid it. Patterson, who’s been in medical practice in Sanford for many years, says Back to Basics, located on Elm Street near the Lee County Courthouse, is “a return to the way medicine used to be practiced, when the doctor/patient relationship was important.” He says that relationship has been replaced in most every other aspect of medicine by doctors now working for insurance companies, the government, hospitals and corporate medicine … and not their patients.

Medically speaking, how do you define seasonal influenza?

Seasonal influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is caused by the influenza viruses that infect the respiratory tract (i.e., the nose, throat, lungs). Unlike many other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, the flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people. In the United States, each year on average, 5-20 percent of the population gets the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from seasonal flu-related complications. Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. This one is. Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

As of this week, 27 North Carolinians have died with this year’s flu. Some people, such as older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions, are usually at high risk for serious flu complications, but 22 of the 27 deaths in N.C. have been from folks younger than 64, and more than half from patients younger than 49. The flu virus causing the havoc this year is the same strain that caused the 2009 worldwide pandemic. Many health professionals say the best way to prevent seasonal flu is by getting a flu vaccination each year. Others talk more about even more basic measures to boost your immunity.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The flu can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly. What we are seeing in Sanford seems to be starting off making patients feel like they may be getting a sinus infection (with a little headache) but very quickly moving into their throats, making them scratchy, and then moving quickly to their chests, causing them to feel “heavy” and making them feel like their breathing is “more difficult.” During this time, the bad achiness starts, and often (but not always) a low-grade fever. About this same time, they will start waking up with a cough, initially dry and really aggravating. Across N.C., health professionals are checking respiratory specimens, and as of this past Monday, about 25 percent are positive for flu.

When is the flu season in the United States?

In the United States, flu season occurs in the fall and winter. The peak of flu season has occurred anywhere from late November through March. We are already experiencing widespread flu in N.C. and 34 other states. The flu is being seen in almost every part of the U.S., making it pandemic.

How does the flu spread?

The main way that influenza viruses are known to spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. Sometimes the spread is subtle … like someone sneezing at the grocery store, on the handles of the cart, then passing on the cart and their flu virus to the next unfortunate person who grabs hold of the cart … or the door knob, or the sink, etc.

If I got the flu or the flu vaccine last year, will I have immunity against the flu this year?

Not necessarily. About 60 percent of the folks we are testing got the flu shot. Some say that you may not be as susceptible, or if you do get it, it may be milder. Experts disagree.

The decrease in “flu shot protection” against the flu that occurs after vaccination or after flu infection can be caused by different factors, including a person’s age, the antigen used in the vaccine and the person’s health situation (for example, chronic health conditions that weaken the immune system may have an impact).

This decline in protection has the potential to leave many people more vulnerable to infection, illness and possibly serious complications from the same influenza viruses a year after being vaccinated or infected.

What are complications?

Complications caused by flu include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes. Children may get sinus problems and ear infections as complications from the flu.

How soon will I get sick if I am exposed to the flu?

The time from when a person is exposed to the flu virus to when symptoms begin is about one to four days, with an average of about two days.

How long is a person with flu virus contagious?

Many flu experts feel that you are contagious, from the onset of flu, for up to 14 days.

Can the flu be treated?

Yes. Much of the treatment is aimed at the symptoms. There are several influenza antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness as well. Physicians can also treat (and often prevent) the complications, but you must act quickly.

Is the “stomach flu” really the flu?

Many people use the term “stomach flu” to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or “sick to your stomach” can sometimes be related to the flu — more commonly in children than adults — these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.

How can I prevent it?

The pharmaceutical industry aims most of their focus on immunizations, or treating the problems caused by the flu ... but why not prevent it completely?

A recent article listed 10 ways to naturally boost your immunity. You can find that article at this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/cold-flu-prevention-natural-immune-boosters_n_2474430.html. It recommends washing your hands and getting plenty of sleep and rest, exercise to boost your illness-fighting ability, proper nutrition and supplements (like Zinc which helps block viruses entering our bodies, garlic, onions, thyme, increased water intake, etc.), cutting down on alcohol-containing beverages, cutting stress, increasing laughter and having a more positive attitude, massage, etc.

My sisters swear by the big pot of chicken broth loaded with garlic, onions etc. ... and sipping on it all day, every day. For a list of natural immune booster supplements, and also natural treatment techniques I point to: