Get to know the flu virus so you can avoid it

Is it ever not flu season?

“It seems like it drags on forever,” said OMRF scientist Hal Scofield, M.D. “And if you think about the way the influenza virus moves around the globe, the season never really ends at all.”

In the U.S., flu season lasts about 12 weeks, which means there’s still another month left to go, he said. Since the end of September, nearly 1,000 people in Oklahoma have been hospitalized because of the flu, and 33 of those have died, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that nationwide, around 22 of every 100,000 people required hospitalization because of the virus. But that’s not a count of how many people get sick with the flu, Scofield said.

“Those hospitalized are, you might imagine, those most affected by the virus,” he said. “But between 5 and 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. That’s a lot of people spending a week or more home sick with fevers, chills and fatigue so bad they can barely get out of bed.”

The best defense against the influenza virus is still the vaccine, and it isn’t too late to get one, he said. But what about swine flu and bird flu and H1N1? If all the flu talk has you dizzy, here’s a primer to bring you up to speed.

What’s with all the Hs and Ns?

All influenza viruses have two molecules covering them: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). There are at least 18 kinds of flu hemagglutinin and 9 kinds of flu neuraminidase, which is how researchers designate the virus. H opens the door by sticking to cells before injecting them full of viral DNA. That process hijacks cells and forces them to pump out copies of the virus. N makes sure the virus doesn’t get stuck when leaving cells.

Do I need to get rid of my birds to avoid bird flu?

Nope. Avian influenza viruses occur in wild aquatic birds around the world and can sometimes infect other bird and animal species. But unless your pet bird has been hanging out with ducks or chickens, it’s not catching the avian flu. And even if it did, avian influenza viruses do not normally infect humans.

But, said Scofield, there are sporadic cases of human infection from bird flu. That’s because bird flu (and swine flu) go through a process called “reassortment” or “antigenic drift.” Basically, if two or more viruses infect the same cell, they can mix and match DNA and mutate. These mutations could render the virus harmless or make it more infectious and more deadly.

Who is keeping an eye on these things?

“Exactly. WHO, or the World Health Organization, has influenza watchers around the world monitoring the spread and mutations of viruses,” he said. “By sharing information, researchers can keep ahead of the curve and predict which strains of the flu should be covered in next year’s vaccines.”

If I get the flu, is it “Starve a fever, feed a cold” or “Starve a cold, feed a fever”?

As with plenty of old wives’ tales, both are wrong. The last thing you want to do is starve your body, regardless of your illness, he said.

“If you’re unlucky enough to get the flu, make sure you’re drinking plenty of liquids—water, juice, sports drinks—to keep from getting dehydrated and making things worse,” he said. “If you’re hungry, you should eat. It’s the fuel your body needs to get over the flu.”