The Italian word âinflenzaâ (influenza) was introduced into English in 1743 to describe illnesses that were influenced by the movement of the moon, planets, and stars (1). This flier is an early 20th century example of a public service announcement related to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, an outbreak which killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. The devastation caused by the pandemic was certainly the result of a strong flu strain, but poor prevention measures and questionable treatment options- smoking cigars, dousing the patient with ice water, bloodletting, and gargling with salt water- produced a death toll that is staggering compared to deaths in the United States over the last 30 years (3,000-to-49,000/year) (2).
Despite advances in prevention and treatment up to 20% of Americans are expected to contract influenza this flu season, November -March, requiring over 200,000 to be hospitalized. Influenza, a respiratory virus, produces symptoms similar to the common cold but typically more severe and also include fever, body aches, fatigue, and chills. Several simple precautions can help prevent you from becoming ill or spreading it if you do.
The CDC recommends getting a flu shot as the first and most effective step to prevent the illness. Although predicting which influenza strains will be active during the season is as much an art as a science, the vaccinations are most effective (67%) when the vaccine matches the current flu strain, vaccines still offer protection when there is cross-matching of vaccine to current flu strain (3,4). Criticisms and fears related to vaccines are a huge topic on the internet (a Google search produced 941,000 hits), but large clinical trials indicate harmful side effects are rare (2). Besides vaccination, there are also several simple behavioral changes and things to know about how germs are spread that can be done to keep yourself and those around you healthy.
Preparing for this article I took a quiz from The NY Times’ wellness section (link) to test my flu knowledge. Thinking I had read quite a bit, I expected to do well, but when the score was totaled I got 2/11 correct, I knew a few of the behaviors covered in the quiz, but had a lot to learn about how the flu is spread. Since influenza and the cold are respiratory viruses, the germs are typically spread through coughing or sneezing (knew that part) and then live on the surfaces they land (didn’t realize most of this) on until they die, infect a new host, or are disinfected. The first big thing you can do, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, is to frequently wash your hands with soap and hot water or use hand sanitizer. I was not shocked to read this, but why we should wash our hands is little alarming.
First to understand how germs spread, a Wake Forrest study found hospital patients being treated for the flu can transmit infected particles up to 6 feet through normal behavior (coughing, sneezing, and talking). These germs then live on the surfaces they touch, up to 48 hours for non-porous materials (stainless steel), porous materials 8-12 hours, and on the hands for up to 15 minutes. It is the hands that are of particular concern because germs can be spread by touching other surfaces and how frequently people touch their face (typically 16 times an hour), putting germs close to their nose and mouth making them more susceptible to infection. So definitely cleaning surfaces with sanitizer, not touching your face, and washing your hands will help, but how should you minimize spreading germs?
I grew being told to cover my mouth when I coughed or sneezed, but a new more sanitary method called the “Dracula cough” has been proven to cut down on the spread of germs into the air or on hands. Like the picture to the right, whenever you cough or sneeze bring your sleeve up to your face and turn your head.
Combining vaccination with proper hygiene is currently the best way to avoid the flu; thankfully our medical knowledge has evolved past the days of blaming the illness on the heavens. If you do get the flu, aside from resting, it seems grandma was right, chicken soup is good for you when you’re sick, so stay rested, hydrated and well nourished. I hope you have a safe and healthy holiday season, at Apex we love making our clients feel better, if you think you have the flu (or any illness) please call ASAP to reschedule your appointment and stay home to rest. Over the next month I’m going to reevaluate the topics covered in this article, I feel excited about the New Year and I want to make sure my time is serving both of us. If you have any questions or feedback, please email me at Jamagn01@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter, I post information related to massage and palliative care, @Jamagn01.