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The Flu: You've Gotten Your Shot, Now What?

Flu, seasonal flu or swine flu,is an illness that has caused millions of people physical misery throughout the ages. In the United States, we've eradicated small pox, cholera, typhoid, even trichinosis; yet one illness that still remains somewhat of an anomaly, despite millions being spent on research for its prevention, is influenza or simply flu.

And, certainly one round of influenza is difficult enough.  But this year, we've got another one, swine flu or H1N1 flu, that has already reached pandemic proportions.

Up until the 1930s, scientists weren't even sure of what actually caused the flu; common knowledge before then attributed it to "bad air" and cold weather.

This misconception is understandable, since it strikes at the same time each year (in the winter months). And while cold weather doesn't CAUSE the ailment, the fact that most of us spend our time indoors during those months and have low levels of vitamin D in our blood means that we provide a fertile breeding ground for the bug. Airborne, the virus is spread through mucus and saliva; the closer people are in proximity to one another, the more swiftly and radically the illness spreads. Additionally, the virus can live for longer periods of time indoors.

The presentation of the flu is similar to that of the rhinovirus (common cold), but apart from those few similarities, there really is no mistaking the influenza virus, once it hits.

After infection, the incubation period lasts three to four days, and the symptoms hit the victim like a semi. The patient suffers from a sore throat, dry cough, chills and body aches that make normal activity absolutely impossible; fevers, which may not occur in each patient, can spike up to 104-106 degrees F.

While the actual illness may last for only a matter of days, the weakness and fatigue that accompany the illness can last up to several weeks.

For now, prevention is the best defense against both types of flu this season; the CDC recommends that adults who have chronic lung problems (such as asthma and bronchitis), as well as the elderly should especially be vaccinated. And pregnant women and those younger than 19 are believed to be at higher risk for severe complications and they should be the first to receive flu shots this fall and winter.

Wash Your Hands

Even if you decide to be vaccinated, make sure you take extra care to wash your hands, and try to avoid putting unwashed hands around the nose, eyes, and mouth.  It's also a good idea to sanitize frequently handled items in your home, office, and even your car (don't forget the steering wheel).

Call Your Doctor

Kjersti Babcock, a university student, recently related an incident that happened when her friend went to the campus clinic with flu-like symptoms: "The nurse told her that there wasn't anything really that [the nurse] could do about it, even if it was the flu."

My guess is that most health professionals would be appalled at that kind of response, especially since there are two viruses floating around this year. While in years past doctors might have had no qualms about merely prescribing Tamiflu over the phone without an office visit, this year is of course, another story entirely.  As Northwest Arkansas physician Dr. Corwin Petty states, "I would say that nearly 100% of doctor's would be against 'just taking Tamiflu'.

"I would recommend coming in the office for a rapid Flu Testing, if sending a viral swab to the CDC or Public Health Department to determine if it is the H1N1 virus."  Well said.

Take Your Vitamin D

There seems to be mounting evidence that vitamin D may play a role in protecting against the seasonal flu.  Further testing is expected to determine whether or not the same holds for the swine flu.  Either way, it can't hurt to go ahead and take a supplement. Experts have said that 5,000 IU per day should be safe.

By Rachel Howell Stockton rachel at foodconsumer dot org