Drawing by Michelle Spark - Column by John
I was talking
with a friend recently and she asked a very intriguing question:
Why is winter the flu season? Whenever these questions arise,
particularly ones about viruses, I call my brother. He's a
non-medical doctor (an entomologist) who is nonetheless fascinated
with diseases˜he did his doctorate dissertation on ticks
and lyme disease. I call him the "Bug
He told me that there has been no scientific studies relating
cold weather directly to the spread of disease insofar as
the winter chill impacting human immune systems. Yet because
in winter we tend to stay indoors and gather in large groups
(schools are in session, shopping malls are full) the spread
of disease is greatly increased. "Are there summer outbreaks
of the flu?" I asked. He said that there were occasional
summer outbreaks but those were mainly due to northern to
southern (and vice versa) hemisphere travel˜a winter
flu victim travels to a summer environment. "But,"
he said "you should really check the CDC web site for
the full story of the flu."
For those who have not spent a few hours scanning the annals
of the CDC I endorse it highly, though some of the information
can increase your anxiety rather than lower it - there seems
to be a disease lurking under every rock. Sure enough there
is no scientific data linking cold weather directly to the
increased risk of getting influenza. Though there are some
studies that suggest the influenza virus does better in cold
weather than in warm. As my brother assumed, the main cause
of the "flu season" is that people spend more time
indoors and in crowds, breathing the same air.
The flu virus is often transmitted to humans by animals, mostly
birds (though sometimes pigs˜remember the "Swine
Flu"˜and other mammals), and it often follows avian
migratory patterns. China seems to be a veritable "petri
dish" for the flu virus because there is much more human
to animal contact on an everyday level. The World Health Oraganization
has what they call an "Animal Influenza Network"
[AIN], which is an integral component of the WHO Influenza
Surveillance Program. It "focuses on aspects of ecology
and molecular biology of animal influenza viruses in the context
of human health."
Over the last 21 years, in North America, February has averaged
the highest amount of influenza infections. To prevent influenza
the CDC recommends a flu shot but for those that have not
gotten one they suggest (and it's pretty much common sense)
1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you
are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from
getting sick too.
2. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when
you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your
3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or
sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
4. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often
spread when a person touches something that is contaminated
with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
How do you know if you have the flu? The CDC says the flu
usually comes on suddenly and they list these common flu symptoms:
* High fever
* Tiredness/weakness (can be extreme)
* Dry cough
* Sore throat
* Runny nose
* Body or muscle aches
* Diarrhea and vomiting also can occur, but are more common
If you do get
the flu here are the CDC's recommendations: If you develop
flu-like symptoms, but you do not have an underlying medical
* Get plenty of rest
* Drink a lot of liquids
* Avoid using alcohol and tobacco
* Consider taking over-the-counter medications to relieve
the symptoms of flu (but never give aspirin to children or
teenagers who have flu-like symptoms)
* Stay home and avoid contact with other people to protect
them from catching your illness
* Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or
sneeze to protect others from your germs. Most healthy people
recover from the flu without complications.
Stay warm. Stay healthy.