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You know the flu from first-hand experience, but what do you really know about it? Brush up on the facts—and learn about some recent developments.
If there’s one illness we’ve all experienced and can identify by name, it’s the flu. We can recall being children staying home in bed with coughing and fever, that slight delirium and the strange sweat that wet our sheets as we began to feel better.
Common as the experience is, conceptions about what the flu is and what can be done about it vary quite a bit, so considering that there have been recent developments in the field of flu prevention and treatment, perhaps it’s time for a review.
First, let’s get something straight: “flu” is short of influenza, which itself is not a single condition but a family of viruses. Influenza A causes the majority of flu-related illness. There are nearly 200 subtypes of Influenza A, such as H1N1 (the so-called “swine flu”), which in 2009 caused the first flu pandemic in 40 years.
Like all living organisms, influenza viruses mutate as the reproduce. (For example, 2009’s H1N1 was different than the H1N1 previously circulating in the human population.) This mutation, along with the fact that different influenza subtypes gain a foothold in the human population from year to year, is why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends annual vaccination for all persons six months and older (excepting a miniscule percentage of people suffering from certain conditions). Each year’s flu vaccine is different from the last and tailored toward the conditions of the current flu season.
One of the most common misconceptions about the flu is that everything with flu-like symptoms is “the flu.” As WebMD notes, flu-like symptoms have many potential causes, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza, rhinovirus, and even common colds. Flu vaccines have no effect on these illnesses.
In addition to injections, the flu vaccine can be administered nasally (FluMist), although in light of evidence pointing toward diminished effectiveness of this delivery system, for the second year running the CDC is recommending that physicians stick with injections.
Despite your best efforts, you may get the flu anyway, in which case you’ll want to know how to treat it. As with so many illnesses, the best medicine is simply rest and lots of fluids. But as the Mayo Clinic notes, “[I]n some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). If taken soon after you notice symptoms, these drugs may shorten your illness by a day or so and help prevent serious complications”; and “over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), to combat the achiness associated with influenza.”
All of these drugs have been around for quite a while, but for the first time in 20 years there’s a new one to add to the list. In October the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) “for the treatment of acute uncomplicated influenza (flu) in patients 12 years of age and older who have been symptomatic for no more than 48 hours.” According to a review in The New England Journal of Medicine, Xofluza is safe, requires only a single dose, and reduces the duration of flu systems by about a day.
As for what the future of flu-prevention holds, it may have something to do with llamas. According to a research paper appearing earlier this month in Science, researchers have successfully synthesized llama antibodies into a vaccine that keeps mice illness-free despite being exposed to otherwise lethal doses of H1N1. It’s still too early to tell if or how well this will translate into human protection, but particular excitement about this development centers around the possibility that the vaccine would be nearly universal, meaning that a single dose might be a lifetime’s worth of immunization.
That, however, is tomorrow. For today, the flu is something we have to deal with every year. But by knowing and respecting the facts, you can minimize its impact on your life.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. Contact: [email protected]
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