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The flu is caused by a virus, which is a microscopic agent that infiltrates living cells and commandeers their machinery to reproduce more viruses. The flu virus, which attacks the respiratory system, is passed from one person to another primarily in droplets of bodily fluids expelled when the infected person sneezes, coughs, or even talks. A pandemic occurs when an outbreak affects many people over a wide area.

Viruses affect not only humans but also animals and birds. Flu viruses are categorized as types A, B, or C. Type A is the most common cause of influenza. Virus strains are classified mainly according to two proteins found on the surface of the virus: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).

The biggest concerns regarding flu viruses are that they may reproduce very rapidly with constantly changing variations and that different strains can combine and produce a new strain. If a strain is sufficiently unique, the human immune system may have no defenses against it.

The flu is usually more common during the colder months. Recent research indicates that at cool temperatures the outer membrane of a virus becomes a protective gel that prolongs the survival of the virus in the air but then melts in the higher temperatures of the human respiratory tract, causing infection. Cold air does not cause viral infections, but it can create the setting that helps them to spread.


Measures of Protection

Recognizing the need to be prepared, many governments have action plans already in place. But what can you do? Let’s review three basic protective steps:

Strengthen the body: Make sure that your family gets sufficient sleep and eats foods that will help the body strengthen its defenses. Your diet should emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, which supply the amino acids needed to build up the immune system.

Create an environment unfriendly to germs: To the extent possible, keep your counters and tables thoroughly clean daily. Wash cooking and eating utensils after every use, and regularly wash bedclothes. Disinfect things that people touch: doorknobs, telephones, remote controls. Maintain good ventilation, if possible.

Practice good habits of personal cleanliness: Wash your hands diligently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand cleaner. (If practical, carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you.) Try not to share towels with anyone for drying hands or face, not even with other family members.

Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. If possible, use disposable tissues to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and throw them away immediately. Avoid sharing devices that can readily spread germs, such as telephones. Children need to be thoroughly trained in these practices. Such habits are good all the time but especially so during the flu season.


Show Consideration for Others

It is possible to start infecting others a day before you show any symptoms and up to five days after getting sick. Symptoms are similar to the common cold but much more intense. They include fever (usually high), headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, and muscle aches. Runny nose and stomach symptoms—such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—are more common in children than in adults. If you have symptoms, stay home if possible and avoid infecting others.

Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Antiviral drugs can be helpful but only if taken soon after the onset of symptoms. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) should not be given to children who have the flu. Seek emergency medical care if you show pneumonialike symptoms, such as trouble breathing, chest pain, or severe persisting headache.

Having the flu can be an unnerving event. Being prepared may help you get through it better.

in Awake!  June 2010

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