Steer clear

It may be the key to avoiding flu

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:06 p.m.
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Knight Ridder Newspapers
The new year has arrived, and the flu is in the news big-time, driven by fears of a rogue influenza virus floating around the country.
Fear of the virus has clogged emergency rooms. Several children have died from the ailment, but health professionals say that while the reports of deaths seem alarming, the real numbers are sobering: Every year about 36,000 Americans die from influenza, and this year may bring even more deaths. Most at risk are people who are elderly, young children or those already sick from something else.
What makes this year's strain of flu so insidious? The flu vaccine that's being used isn't aimed at the flu that's wreaking havoc.
Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine, said this year the strains of influenza "are not a perfect match with the vaccine."
"I think that's what's scary," says pharmacist Paul Mistretta. "Not only is the flu vaccine the wrong vaccine, but the season seems to have started earlier."
If you want to steer clear of the flu, take the precautions listed here, which can help you avoid germs.
Avoiding colds and flu
  • Every time you shake hands, make a mental note to wash yours.
    Then, wash frequently and vigorously. Lots of soap and water dilutes viruses and sends them down the drain.
  • Keep your hands off of your nose and eyes
    Scratch your nose or rub your eye and you may have introduced a virus.
  • Get enough sleep-eight to 10 hours a night
    Being rested helps your body fight illnesses. Fatigue lowers your resistance.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking reduces your body's ability to fight viruses.
  • Don't eat after double-dippers at holiday buffets.
    Someone bites a carrot and then sticks it back in the dip? Not only is it rude, it can be infectious.
  • Drink a lot of fluids, moisturize your skin and keep the nose moist.
    The skin keeps out cooties, but if it cracks or gets raw, it's like an open door. Same for the nose. If you're breathing a lot of dry air, your nasal membranes may crack. Most drugstores sell saline nasal sprays-basically saltwater that can moisten nasal passages with no side effects.
  • Avoid enclosed places. Sitting in an office with someone who is infected is a sure way to inhale the germs. Avoid it if you can. An office where someone is sneezing and coughing is the worst.
  • If someone sneezes or coughs around you, wash.
    Coughing and sneezing expel tiny globules that contain the cold germs. They're heavy and tend to sink, but slowly. The globules land on everything, including your hands. Wash and avoid touching surfaces around coughers and sneezers.
  • Handiwipes and other alcohol wipes are better than nothing for cleaning hands.
    But soap and water are the standards.
  • Be healthy Exercise, eat properly, avoid stress. Healthy people have fewer bouts with colds and the flu, and illnesses of shorter duration
    How germs are spread Doctors and public health professionals agree that most people get colds, the flu and other infections by feeding the germ to themselves or hanging around where germs reside.
    So they all repeat the same mantra: Wash your hands, and consider double or triple hand-washing.
    Generally, germs are spread when people:
  • Touch surfaces where germs live and then put their fingers in their mouths, eyes and nose.
  • Use public toilets without adequate hand washing.
  • Go to parties and eat from community bowls.
  • Stand nose to nose with someone sneezing.
  • Sit in closed offices or stand in elevators with people who are coughing.

    How to kill germs

  • How does soap work? Soap doesn't really kill germs; it surrounds them and carries them away. Washing your hands allows soap to attach to dead skin, oils and organic materials and then float them away in fast-moving water.
    It works this way: The best description of a soap molecule is that it has a head and a tail, much like a sperm, only tinier.
    The head wants to attach itself to organic materials, primarily oil, but also germs - the generic name for viruses, bacteria and fungus - and dead skin.
    The tail wants to float around in water. When soap molecules find something that attracts them, they surround it. Magnified, it would look much like sperm trying to find an egg - like in those films on the Discovery Channel.
    Once the soap molecules attach to the material, the tails of the soap molecules float. The water becomes cloudy as the soap carries away dirt and germs.
    That's why a couple of drops of dishwashing soap in a bowl of oily water make the oil disappear and the water becomes murky. The oil is "emulsified" - surrounded by soap molecules. Once the oil and germs are surrounded, they're unable to stick to anything.
    Hand washing also takes away dead skin where microbes reside, says Dr. Michael Cannon, assistant professor of community and family medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. A good wash, with double- or triple-soaping to the wrist, is good protection.
  • Disinfection: Anything strong enough to kill every germ on a surface would also kill living skin. Some substances may kill some weaker forms of microbes, but tougher microbes won't be affected.
    Soap, however, paired with running water, carries away so many microbes that what's left is ineffective against the body's defenses.
    Some alcohol cleaners work well when running water isn't available, but nothing beats a wash, say experts.
  • What the pros use: Many hospitals and laboratories use a solution of about 5 percent bleach to disinfect surfaces. A good homemade formula is a mixture of a cup of bleach to a gallon of water.
    Still, the solution needs to sit for several minutes before being wiped off in order to make the surface surgery-safe.
    This regimen should kill any virus, including HIV, hepatitis and cold viruses.

    What is the flu?

  • Influenza, the flu, is a family of viruses that attacks the respiratory system: nose, throat and lungs. Flu viruses share the same DNA but differ enough so they are categorized in three major types: A, B and C.
    The organism is so primitive that a manufacturer can make an effective vaccine and in the midst of the flu season, or before it starts, the virus mutates into a new scourge. When scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided on this year's vaccine, they thought last year's dominant flu strain would return. Instead, a new strain has emerged, so the vaccine doesn't protect against it as well.
    Variety C is the mildest. A and B can kill. Some varieties, such as swine flu, can jump between animals and people; some varieties only infect people. They're too small to see in a microscope, but close up they look like noodles.
    Only the flu is the flu. Colds often get blamed for and even resemble the flu; medical tests can distinguish between the two. In general, the flu is characterized by a high fever, extreme fatigue, headache and severe aching. Cold sufferers are more apt to just have a stuffy nose, sore throat, mild cough and mild fatigue.

    How you catch the flu

  • Most people catch the flu by inhaling the aerosol of someone else's cough or sneeze. Less often it's from touching a contaminated surface.
  • If you get the flu, only the immune system can kill it. Medical science can't cure a virus - any virus. A flu shot and the growing use of nasal mist vaccines are preventions; they get the immune system ready to fight the flu. Antibiotics are useless against the flu.
  • The flu can be contagious one day before a person shows symptoms and for a week after symptoms appear. Children are contagious for longer periods - sometimes days longer. It is possible for a person to have the flu, have no symptoms but still spread the virus. Doctors say that's unlikely - but not impossible - because if a virus isn't strong enough to flatten the carrier, it won't be strong enough to flatten someone else.

    How to treat the flu

  • If you get the flu, rest, drink plenty of liquids, don't smoke or drink alcohol, and take acetaminophen (Tylenol-type drugs) to help relieve symptoms.
  • Do not give aspirin to a child or teen who has the flu without checking with your doctor first. Use aspirin-free types of medications (such as Tylenol) for fever, aches and pains. Children with the flu who take aspirin are at risk of developing a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  • Flu victims generally recover in about two weeks. Once you recover, you won't ever get the same strain of flu again. If your recovery doesn't start within a week to 10 days, you might have something other than the flu.
  • See a doctor if your temperature stays above 100.5 degrees for more than three days.

    Facts about the flu

  • In North America, the major flu season is the winter, although cases occur year-round. This season seems to have started two months early. Cases began showing up in September. February is traditionally the heaviest flu season.
  • There's no such thing as stomach flu. Vomiting, diarrhea and nausea are caused by bacteria, parasites and other viruses. While the flu may make your body vulnerable, influenza only attacks the respiratory system.
  • About 10 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population (30 to 60 million people) will get the flu this year. Around 36,000 will die. An additional 114,000, maybe more, will be hospitalized.
  • In 1918-19, Spanish flu killed about 500,000 people in the United States, and roughly 20 million to 50 million people worldwide.
    Most people died within the first few days; more died later of complications. Almost half of the people who died were young, healthy adults. In 1957-58, Asian flu killed about 70,000 people in the United States. In 1968-69, Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people. The Hong Kong variety of influenza is most common today.
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