How to treat the flu |

How to treat the flu

Commuters wear protective masks to prevent infection from swine flu at a subway station in Mexico City Thursday April 30, 2009. Mexico is telling citizens to stay home, urging businesses to close for five days and suspending government services as the World Health Organization warns the swine flu outbreak is on the brink of becoming a global epidemic.(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses and many other diseases have “flu-like” symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

In general, the flu is more serious than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense. The flu begins abruptly, with a fever in the 102- to 106-degree range. Some people experience dizziness or vomiting. The fever usually lasts for a day or two, but can last five days. Between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the body aches may begin to subside, and respiratory symptoms begin to increase. The virus can settle anywhere in the respiratory tract, causing sore (red) throat, bronchitis, ear infection, and/or pneumonia. These symptoms (except the cough) usually disappear within four to seven days. Sometimes there is a second wave of fever at this time. The cough and tiredness usually lasts for weeks after the rest of the illness is over.

Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose and it seldom leads to pneumonia. Over 200 different types of viruses can cause a cold and Rhinoviruses, meaning “nose viruses,” are the most common cause and this is why no vaccine has been produced for the common cold. Throat irritation is often involved (but not a red throat). Adults and older children generally have minimal or no fever.

Inhaling droplets from coughs or sneezes is the most common way to catch the flu and colds. Symptoms appear one to seven days later (usually two-three days with the flu). The flu virus is generally more contagious than the cold virus. With its short incubation period, it often strikes a community all at once, creating a noticeable cluster of school and work absences. The virus can be caught by touching something with the virus, such as a door handle, and then the virus sticks to the hand, and then we touch our mouth, eyes or nose and from there it enters the respiratory tract. Cold and flu viruses stay airborne for longer when the humidity is lower, such as during the winter and that is why illness is more prevalent this time of the year.

Sneezing, coughing and fever are your natural defenses. Sneezing ejects the virus from the nose; coughing from the lungs and throat. Fever makes it difficult for the virus to reproduce. Do not take aspirin! Do not try to lower a fever, stay wrapped up and warm to cause a sweat. Drink fluids to replace the water lost by sweating. The best advice is go to bed, stay warm, drink fluids. Nyquil, Aleve, Tylenol, Motrin, Bufferin, Anacin and a whole long list of other medications, all contain aspirin or aspirin-like compounds Temperatures above 101 stops the flu virus from dividing and spreading. It is an immune system response which only mammals have developed to prevent the spread of viral flu infections. With a fever, the viral infection is slowed down sufficiently so that the body’s immune system can take over and destroy damaged cells. Reducing fever might make you feel better initially but the viruses are allowed to reproduce. The body then tries to quickly flush the billions of viruses from the infected lungs with massive amounts of immune defense cells, and fluid and viral pneumonia can result. It is possible that taking aspirin with the flu may be the cause of some deaths.

The other danger is Reye’s syndrome, especially in children This usually follows an acute viral infection, particularly influenza or flu especially when aspirin or other salicylates have been given. The symptoms usually appearing a week after the virus infection include vomiting and disorientation, which may be followed by seizures, coma and respiratory arrest.

We now have several effective antiviral medications available on the market and the ability to make vaccines against flu viruses. Once you recover from particular strain of the flu you are immune. Unfortunately the flu virus is constantly changing and that is why you need a new flu shot every year for the new strains that are circulating the globe.

Do not mistake antibiotics for anti-virals and do not take antibiotics for the flu or cold. Antibiotics are effective only against bacterial infections and not illnesses caused by viruses. Antibiotics act against some part of a bacterial metabolic pathway. Bacteria are living cells. Viruses are not living cells but a piece of genetic material wrapped up in a protein coat. They reproduce only when in a living cell.

So if you think you have the flu, call your doctor and get a prescription for an antiviral, go to bed, stay warm, drink fluids.

Dr. Joanne Stolen recently retired from Rutgers University where she taught microbiology. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution. She is now full-time resident of Breckenridge.

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