TAKE 5: What is influenza?

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Dr. Robert Patterson about causes and prevention for influenza. Patterson, who was born and raised in Sanford, graduated from Sanford Central High School in 1970. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, graduating in 1974, then earned a Medical School degree there in 1978. He completed a three-year residency in Family Medicine in Charlotte before returning to Sanford, where he’s been in private practice since 1981. He is currently medical director and president of The Family Doc Diagnostic & Wellness Center in Sanford. He and his wife, Cecelia, are members of Turner’s Chapel Church.

What is influenza?

The Mayo Clinic describes flu as “a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Influenza, commonly called the flu, is not the same as the stomach ‘flu’ viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines flu further as “inflammation of the respiratory tract accompanied by fever, chills, muscular pain, and prostration. Also called grippe.”

How serious can influenza be for the population in general?

Every year in the United States, on average, 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu. The Centers for Disease Control is constantly surveying the entire country to try to get an idea about the severity. Their reports are confusing. As of Dec. 1, they say it is widespread in the U.S. and North Carolina (since it has been seen), but they also say that North Carolina is one of six states experiencing low ILI (Influenza-like illness) activity. As of Dec. 1 (for this entire year) there have been a total of five influenza-associated deaths in North Carolina.

What's a flu shot, and how do the shots work?

The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. (There is also a “live virus” type given by nasal spray.) The flu shot contains three seasonal influenza viruses which have been grown in eggs. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against those three influenza viruses that researchers think will be most common during the upcoming season. They’re chosen almost a year in advance of the season, out of almost a thousand different possible viral choices. When our bodies are exposed to even the dead virus, we start to make our own “antibodies” to help fight the virus, if we are ever exposed to it.

Who should get one, who shouldn't?

Older people, young children and people with certain health conditions are at high risk for serious flu complications should get a flu shot. Some of these conditions include chronic ailments involving the heart or the lungs (asthmatics, folks with emphysema, COPD).

The live vaccine available by nasal spray should be limited to certain groups, ideally those from 2-50 years of age, although there are some exceptions. The flu shot we are all familiar with should not be given to persons known to have previous allergic reactions to eggs or to other components of the influenza vaccine. Use of antiviral agents is an option for preventing influenza among these people. Information about vaccine components can be found in the package inserts from each manufacturer. In addition, people with moderate to severe acute febrile illness usually should not be vaccinated until their symptoms have cleared completely. However, minor illnesses with or without fever do not prevent the use of an influenza vaccine, according to most authorities.

What other preventative measures are there?

The best way to prevent the flu virus is by practicing certain techniques that are just plain good things to do anyway. They include:

* eating an appropriate, healthy diet. Some things we eat can temporarily damage our immune systems (like simple sugars), while other things can boost our immunity (including Vitamins C and D, antioxidants, and herbal remedies such as Echinacea, Garlic, Elderberry, etc.).

* washing your hands, especially when you're out in public places, with hot water and soap. When you travel, it's a good idea to carry alcohol towelettes with you.

* avoiding contact with people who have respiratory illnesses. Airborne droplets from sneezes and coughs are what spread the influenza virus from person to person.

* minimizing the spread of germs by avoiding touching your hands to your face or your eyes.

* covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after using it, and wash your hands.

If you feel like you need treatment, check with your physician. He or she can prescribe medication if the problem is indeed the flu. It is important to start taking this within the first 48 hours of symptoms — its effectiveness declines as the illness builds.

Other suggestion: try elderberry extract. This can help to lessen the symptoms and speed up recovery. Eat garlic; raw garlic is best — try at least two cloves per day, chopped up in a sandwich or in soup. Get rest; lack of sleep and too much stress can make the body weak — if you get the flu, rest as much as possible while your symptoms are resolving. And finally, drink fluids. Staying hydrated helps to eliminate toxins and metabolic wastes from your body.