One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Disclaimer: I am not your doctor.  I am not trying to give you medical advice.  If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 now.  Now!  Thank you.


Tis the season.  Everyone has “The Flu.”  Unfortunately for health care providers everywhere, “The Flu” represents at least four different situations in our culture.

1) The Flue.  Let’s get this one out of the way as it’s the least confusing.  Anyone with a woodburning fireplace has A Flue.  The great news is, flues aren’t contagious!

2) Which brings us to the next The Flu, as in Influenza, as in THE REAL DEAL FLU!  This is the bad one.  It isn’t actually one at all but many.  Sorry.  There are a three types of the influenza virus.  Ya got yer influenza A and yer influenza B and yer influenza C.

But influenza A is further divided into subtypes: influenza A H(1-18)N(1-11).  In other words, there are 19 different possibilities of H protein and 11 different possibilities of N protein on the surface of the influenza A virus.  To put this in mathematical terms would require me to relive something involving factorials and I’m not going there.  Suffice it to say that nature can produce many H + N combinations for our respiratory pleasure.

The joy doesn’t stop.  There can be many strains of a certain subtype.  Remember H1N1 from 2009?  That was a new strain of influenza A H1N1.  Vaccine wizards try to predict which strains, subtypes, and types will be particularly important in upcoming flu seasons and tailor “The Flu Shot” to those strains.  Sometimes they get it right.  Other times not so much.  Don’t get too mad at them – remember that factorial situation.

How does The Flu Shot work?  Most of the shots contain dead flu viruses.  “Inactivated” is the slightly more pleasant term.  So I get my shot and my immune system picks up the dead viruses and says, hm, we have an intruder.  (Technically, we have three ((trivalent vaccine – this year containing an A H1N1, an A H3N2, and a B)) or four ((quadrivalent vaccine – everything above plus another B)) intruders.)  Let’s make antibody weapons directed against this intruder!  It takes a couple weeks for me to really build up my antibody arsenal.  When someone with The Flu sneezes on my face and I get exposed to real live virus, my immune system recognizes the intruder and my antibody weapons are ready to be deployed.

FluMist, the nose spray flu vaccination, is made up of “live attenuated” virus.  Think of it like a scorpion with its stinger removed.  No don’t.  That’s creepy.  Think of it like a barberry bush with the thorns removed.  Never mind.  Think of it like a virus that’s still alive but can’t hurt you.  Your body builds up antibody weapons to fight it because it’s an intruder.  When the real live thorny stingered virus comes calling, the antibody weapons are ready to go.

To put this in perspective, our bodies are exposed to thousands of new “intruders” each day as we eat and breathe and live.  Most of us can easily handle a couple more.

Influenza A is currently running rampant according to my charming husband and this helpful yet alarming map.  If you lived in California or Hawaii during the month of December, good for you.  It’s January now though, and all bets are off.

3) So how about The Flu, like The Stomach Flu, like I’m-Puking-And-Pooping-And-Miserable Flu.  Well, technically that isn’t flu at all.  Depending on your circumstances, it could be “food poisoning” (which isn’t really poisoning, but ingestion of food-borne microbes such as campylobacter and salmonella) or viral gastroenteritis caused by any one of a number of fecal-to-oral transmitted viruses.  Norovirus,  the virus-formerly-known-as-Norwalk, is the big offender in this country.
Yup, you read that right.  Fecal, as in POOP, to oral, as in EAT POOP.  Ace and I both learned a scintillating saying in medical school: “If shit were red, the world would be pink.”  Just let that one sink in for a minute.  The moral to the story is: WASH YOUR HANDS.

4) Finally, we come to The Flu.  “I have a touch of The Flu” is what your neighbor says when he has a runny nose and slight cough.  Folks, you cannot have a touch of the Actual Flu.  The Actual Flu doesn’t touch you, it bowls you over, leaving you prostrate and begging for mercy.  Your neighbor’s “touch of The Flu” is likely a viral upper respiratory infection, caused by one of a group of constantly mutating viruses.  Hence, no vaccine).  Common causes of The Common Cold include rhinovirus, parainfluenza virus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

People know that “a touch of The Flu” will excuse them from work, uncomfortable social obligations, and cooking duty.  “A touch of The Flu” begs sympathy and chicken noodle soup.  “I have a cold” and you can just join the club.  Buck up!

If you schedule an appointment with your Minnesota doctor for symptoms of a viral upper respiratory infection during the months of December or January, s/he is likely to be sicker than you are and more than a little peevish from a vexing combination of stress (it’s nearly impossible for doctors to just “call in sick”) and lack of sleep.

That was fun!  Thanks for hanging out with me.

Musical Moment

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5 Responses to One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  1. Betsy says:

    Lordy, but I wish my mother would read this, understand this, and actually let it sink in. She won’t so she will continue to have a touch of the flu for the rest of her life. She will also continue to try to take antibiotics for such touches. And I, as her ever loving daughter, will just smile and nod. And refuse the Wellness pills that she swears by. Thanks for the PSA Anne. Very well written.

  2. John says:

    And, of course, “flew” is what all your sage commentary did as it grazed the scalps of most folks.

  3. Kathleen Chesney says:

    Helpful info. As a result of reading this I finally made an appointment for my flu shot. Thanks.

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