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In the News

Influenza Myths and Tidbits

By Dr. Victor Gong, Medical Director of 75th St. & 126th St. Medical, Ocean Pines Medical & Doctors Weight Control & Wellness centers, Ocean City, MD.

Despite evidence to the contrary, there are a few myths about the flue that continue to prevail. One myth has to do with what people often refer to as the "24-hour flu." This is an illness characterized by the sudden onset of vomiting and diarrhea, accompanies by a general feeling of malaise. It can be quite intense in the first few hours but tends to subside completely after 24 hours. While this illness is indeed caused by a viral agent, it is not caused by the influenza virus, and so therefore is not a form of the flu at all. The correct term for this type of upset is "gastroenteritis," which indicates an infection of the gastrointestinal tract.

Another common myth about influenza is that being cold or chilled makes us more susceptible to it (as well as to the common cold). Several scientific studies on humans have shown that those exposed to severe temperatures for several hours fare no worse as far as becoming ill than those who are kept warm and dry. The myth is perpetuated because severe chills are one of the first symptoms of the flu, leading people to believe that they somehow "caught a chill" that led to the illness.

An additional myth is the belief that using medicine to keep the fever down helps us to get over the illness. Experimental studies on the flu in animals show that more of the virus is excreted over a longer period of time when the body temperature is lowered with medication. While such treatments may make you feel better, they don't necessarily help you get over the virus.

A Cold or the Flu: Which Is It?

The common cold and influenza are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. Although the symptoms can be similar, influenza is worse: A cold may drag you down a bit, but influenza can make you shudder at the very thought of getting out of bed.

Congestion, sore throat, and sneezing are common with colds, and both ailments bring coughing, headache, and chest discomfort. With influenza you are likely to run a high fever for several days, and your head and body will ache. Usually, complications from colds are relatively minor, but a severe case of influenza can lead to a life-threatening illness like pneumonia.

What To Do When You Get the Flu

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen – if you must. One of the characteristic symptoms of influenza is a high fever that ranges anywhere from 102 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Headaches are also seen almost universally with influenza. Lowering the fever will help to prevent dehydration and will cut down on the severe, shaking chills associated with fever. On the other hand, since a fever may actually help your body fight the influenza bug, you may want to try to let the fever run its course if you can. People who have a history of gastrointestinal problems and/or ulcer disease should avoid taking aspirin and ibuprofen. Individuals aged 21 and under should avoid taking aspirin during the flu season because the combination of aspirin and the flu in this age group has been associated with Reye's syndrome, an often-fatal illness characterized by sudden, severe deterioration of brain and liver function.
  • Drink, drink, drink. This doesn't mean alcoholic beverages, of course, But drinking plenty of any other nonalcoholic, decaffeinated liquid (caffeine acts as a diuretic, which actually increases fluid loss) will help to keep you hydrated and will also keep any mucous secretions you have more liquid. Juices are good for keeping some nutrients coming in when you're not eating much else.
  • Humidify your home in winter. Influenza viruses survive better when the humidity is low. Humidifying your home in the winter not only helps to prevent the spread of flu, it also makes you feel better once you have it.
  • Suppress a dry cough. For a dry-hacking cough that's keeping you from getting the rest you need, you can reach for over-the counter relief. Cough remedies containing dextromethorphan are best for a dry cough.
  • Encourage a "productive" cough. A cough that brings up mucus, on the other hand, is considered productive and should not be suppressed with cough medicines. Drinking fluids will help bring the mucus of a productive cough up and will ease the cough a little as well.

Prevention

Influenza vaccine is available through physicians and public-health facilities. Because influenza is a serious threat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend vaccination for everyone over 65; nursing home residents and employees; anyone whose immune system is compromised by aids, cancer, or other chronic ailments; and people who work in medical facilities. The vaccine is usually given as a single injection, although children may receive two. If you are pregnant, wait until your second trimester and make sure your doctor approves of the vaccination. Some peple develop low fever and muscle aches as side effects of the vaccine. Because the vaccine is grown in chicken embryos, it is not recommended for people allergic to eggs.

Despite advances in prevention and treatment, influenza and its complications are still fatal to about 20,000 people in the U.S. annually.

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