Survive the flu

The flu, or influenza, is a nasty infection, caused by a virus (NOT by bacteria). It causes a lot of head-cold-like symptoms (aches, scratchy throat, coughing), but much of the danger is what it does to your lungs. There's always some kind of flu - usually many kinds - floating around, but the late autumn and winter seem to be the big flu seasons in the northern hemisphere. 

You folks in the other hemisphere should just shift this discussion a few months, as appropriate. Right?

Antibiotics do not affect the flu, because antibiotics do not affect viruses.


Mostly, influenza strikes the most vulnerable people in the population, because - while strains of the flu are always different, they all tend to be based on previous variants, so there is some partial immunity among people who have had previous bouts of flu.

Very young people haven't got fully-developed immune systems, so they are more vulnerable. Very old people are often weak from various ailments and therefore vulnerable.

But every so often, a new type of flu comes along, like the Swine Flu, that was "popular" a few years ago. Unknown, or radically different flu variants, like so-called Swine Flue, or H1N1 are not like just any influenza virus; because there's no reservoir of partial immunity in the population, those variants hit young healthy people, in their prime, as well as us crusty old farts.

If no variant of a previous flu has been spread for more than a generation or two, only the oldest people might ever have encountered anything like it, and for everybody younger, it's new and frightening. You might have a partial immunity if you are older than 50 and were exposed to a similar strain of influenza when you were a child. It won't give you perfect immunity, but it'll help you fight it off, or it'll help make an infection less damaging.

Any influenza virus; it gets into you - infects you - via:

  • your nostrils
  • your mouth and throat
  • possibly your eyes (well, the wet bits that hold your eyes)

As it spreads to people all around you, it becomes pretty-much impossible to avoid contact with it.

Your task is to avoid its penetration and proliferation to your lungs, where it really takes hold.

Don't let flu spread to you - or from you

Here's what to do:

  • Frequent hand-washing - this is the one you see in all the official communications and well-meaning unofficial stuff. The purpose is to prevent you bringing somebody else's sprayed droplets (from coughs, sneezes) to your mouth or nose. That is, if your hand touches your face, it had better be a clean hand. 
  • Similarly, if you rub your face, blow your nose, cough or sneeze on your hands, washing your hands will help prevent you spreading the infection -- to maybe your spouse, your children, your elderly parents. If the virus is washed off before you touch, there's no transfer.
  • Cough (or sneeze) into your sleeve, like the crook of your elbow, so you won't have to wash your hands every thirty seconds.
  • Hands off your face - this is one of the most difficult. Not only must you resist temptation, like the little itches and twitches that we all experience all the time, to which you usually respond by rubbing or scratching, you must also resist the almost unconscious, automatic responses to do that. Mostly, you'll catch yourself after you've done it, but if you pay attention, you can train yourself to minimize face-touching. If you wash or gel your hands, in order to deliberately touch your face, then also clean your face before touching it. Otherwise, you risk pushing flu virus that was resting harmlessly on your face into your mouth or nose, where it takes hold.
  • That means don't rub your eyes either. Your eyes are connected to your nasal passages.
  • Gargle a couple of times per day, using warm salt water or Listerine. Some suggest dilute Hydrogen Peroxide as a gargle... though we think that "not for internal use" includes gargling and spitting. Maybe you won't invite oral cancer from a peroxide gargle or ten when you have the flu, but we recommend against it as a frequent/regular occurrence).
    But Listerine and salt water are safe enough, and gargling can disrupt the flu virus that might be in the throat, about to dig in and infect you. Gargling can also minimize an infection in the two-to-three days from initial infection (in your throat) before it proliferates enough to show the usual flu symptoms. That means, either you can cut it off, or you can lessen the assault - perhaps suffer a light case of flu and not a full-blown infection. So start the gargling the moment you notice a sore or scratchy throat. 
  • If you are thoroughly infected, get Tamiflu into you as soon as you possibly can. Getting it early can reduce what would otherwise be a severe infection. Gargling with salt water can have a similar effect if you do it before an infection gets seriously involved. And it's cheap.
  • Clean your nostrils at least once per day with warm salt water or hydrogen peroxide. If you are a practiced yogi, you can swirl the stuff through and not choke. If you aren't good at Jala Neti or Sutra Neti (look those up on a yoga website), then just blow your nose and follow up by swabbing with a cotton swab dipped in warm salt water. It reduces the flu viral population. Anything that reduces the viral load... helps. As a bonus, gargling and nose-swishing can help reduce the amount of flu virus you are blasting out to your family and friends. Remember, you start shedding virus at least a day or two before you show real symptoms.
  • Boost your immune system with extra hits of vitamin C - either with C-rich foods or with supplements, and be sure to get some zinc in you. It helps vitamin C to be better absorbed. Also, consider Echinacea and Astragalus supplements for a further immune boost.
  • Drink lots of warm/hot beverages like tea and coffee, which do a lot of what gargling does. Whether the virus is washed out of you by gargling or is washed down to your stomach on a flow of tea, it goes where it can't do you any harm.

None of these is 100% or fool-proof. What they do accomplish is to reduce your exposure to flu, and to lessen an infection if you do get one.

Again, if you find yourself with influenza symptoms, get to a doctor or clinic and get some Tamiflu into you. After the first few days though, it's a waste of time (and money). Before then, it can take a big chunk out of the viral assault and make your flu much milder. For some of us who have asthma and other conditions, it can mean the difference between surviving and not surviving. Regular flu and swine flu are both harder (deadlier) on people with "underlying conditions".

To help sort out the difference between the common cold, the flu, and pneumonia, see our pages about the common cold and about the differences between viruses and bacteria as causes for disease.

Mainly, if you have burning eyes and a runny nose, it's more likely a cold than the flu.

Immunization - do it

Of course, the biggest step you can take is to get the flu shots. However many are recommended this year. The regular seasonal flu is no joke, and it kills thousands of people each year - usually older folk, those with other conditions, and young children. Variants like the H1N1 (Swine Flu) were different when they appeared, in that we  hadn't seen - except a somewhat related strain 50 years previous. Flu variants that have not been seen in decades can kill healthy young adults, while also killing other people.

If you have kids, or elderly relatives whom you'll be seeing during the flu season, you owe it to them to get yourself immunized.

If you don't, then when you DO catch the flu, you'll be shedding virus on everybody for a couple of days before you even know you've got it.

Also, if one of your kids, or your elderly parent catches the flu you can be a lot more use to them if you are upright and mobile, than if you are flat on your back, moaning and coughing.

Do the right thing.

What does a vaccine do?

A vaccine harmlessly replicates parts of a germ (usually virus) that can be detected and recognized by your body. The vaccine waves a red flag at your body, saying "I'm an invader, and I look/feel/smell like this!!" Your body reacts to any invasion by trying to discern something unique about it and then creating antibodies to attack whatever carries that identifying trait.

When a new attack happens - a virus or microbe that you've never encountered before - the body has no way to identify it as this-or-that kind of foe. Your early defenses recognize that something's not right, but they can only do generic defensive actions, throw out some inconveniences, discomforts, and delaying tactics to slow down the attacker, while waiting for the system to pick up specific ways to really hurt the invader without hurting self.

It's during that time - while a new infection (like swine flu / H1N1 was, back in 2009) is being analyzed - that it can take a strong foothold and do real damage to your body. If you are tired or over-stressed, or run-down from a recent illness of some other kind, the door is wide open for an attack to take hold.

So, if you can introduce something harmless that "looks" a lot like a potential invader, then the body prepares defenses in advance. When the real invader arrives, there's almost no delay before your body can deploy the "big guns", the targeted antibodies from its stockpiles and from its ready-made war-machine construction templates. Your immune system is prepared, so it doesn't have to waste time fumbling around, looking for the right tools to construct the right weapon.

That's what the vaccine is - a "warning-shot" that you fire to get your body's attention so that your immune system can go through the time-consuming recognition and analysis process while you are not really being attacked. When you do get attacked by the real flu (or other) bug, the body is ready to come out fighting and kill the invaders before they can do you real damage.

THAT is why some people insist that they got the flu from the flu vaccine. They felt the mild symptoms of their body reacting to the fake invader (the vaccine), and making war preparations. That can sometimes mean a mild fever and a bit of malaise for a couple of days. It's nothing, really, much less than a common cold, but if you are a hypochondriac, and paranoid, you notice and jump on every little symptom as though it's life-and-death. And then you tell every idiot that will listen to you that you "got the flu from the vaccine".

[Editorial Comment] That wouldn't be so bad if the idiots were just keeping each other from getting vaccinated and were dying off from the flu, and removing themselves from the gene pool, but no... by avoiding getting vaccinated, they increase the reservoir of unprotected people available to get infected and spread the infection. Remember, when you first get infected, you are infectious yourself for a couple of days before you even feel really sick yourself - so if you've just gotten infected with flu or swine flu, you happily spread it to family, friends, co-workers, people at stores that you visit, people at church, people at school, before it even becomes obvious that you are carrying.

That's the thing: idiots don't just hurt themselves; they hurt bystanders, too. For every moron who "has a few too many" drinks and then wraps his car around a tree, there's at least a couple who wrap their cars around a van full of kids on the way home from the basketball game, or somebody's Mom coming back from her nursing shift at the hospital. Similarly, when they latch onto bone-headed reasons to avoid getting immunized against the flu, they don't quietly go expire in an isolated cabin in the woods. No, they expose dozens of people and then recover while somebody else dies. [/Editorial Comment]

The swine flue / h1n1 virus is from a family of viruses that had not been generally attacking people since the 1950s (-ish). That means, only people who are at least in their mid-50s had ever been exposed and had ever developed any kind of immunity (even partial) to this kind of virus. In 2009, when swine flu came back, most younger people had no ammunition at all to fight off this flavor of virus.

That's partly why vibrantly healthy young people can be struck down and killed by such a virus in a matter of days. They have no way to recognize it until it's already firmly established, and it kills them before they can begin to really fight back.

But just because you are over 50 doesn't mean that you necessarily had exposure to the earlier virus. If you didn't, then you had no more protection than does a 20-year-old. The same applies to any disease that has not been in the general population for many decades - herd immunity goes away.

OR, if you did get exposed and did develop a residual immunity back then, your system's antibodies are not a perfect match for the new version. Your system will react quickly, but it won't have the exact tools it needs. Still, it should slow down the virus and give you enough time to develop the refined-version antibodies that you need to finish the job. Maybe. 

Also, whether it's an old disease coming back or just a variant of the usual types, it's often useful to get TWO of the same flue shot, several weeks apart. First, when you get a flu immunization shot, your body starts reacting, but you don't develop real immunity for days or weeks - there's a delay. Second, it often takes a second kick to really get the attention of your immune system, and have it crank up to maximum immunity. 

Finally, immunization is not absolute. It's giving yourself a fighting chance. It improves your odds. For that reason, just because you do get a flu shot, you should still do all those preventive things we suggested above.

We think that you should probably get the flu shots anyway for two reasons:

  • yourself (do you really want to play roulette, guessing that you've got some partial immunity from your youth and that it'll be 'good enough'?)
  • people around you, like children, other family, co-workers, friends

We mean, wouldn't you feel silly if your favorite 20-year-old child came home from college, caught the flu from you, and died?

Special "Don't be an idiot!" section

Are you thinking about not getting the flu shot?

Are you a nut-ball conspiracy-theorist?

What is it really? Did you hear somebody (who heard it from her crazy brother-in-law) mumble something about "mercury"?

Um, it's not a problem. The vaccine has a tiny amount of preservative, based on ethyl-mercury. Tiny. You can get a bigger dose of mercury from eating a couple of can's of tuna.

Also, the mercury compound is ethylated, and is rapidly eliminated from the body, so the vaccine is innocuous in that respect.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mercury coin - the tuna (or mackerel, or swordfish or other ocean predator) meat that you will probably eat anyway is from a fish at the top of the ocean food-chain, so they've eaten a lot of little fishies that ate a lot of littler fishies, that ate a lot of plankton and krill and other tiny critters. The tiniest critters each sucked up a tiny bit of mercury pollution with whatever floating- or bottom-gunk they ate. Then predators ate them, and then got eaten in turn. With each successive level of predator, that little bit of mercury got concentrated a little more. The biggest, meanest fishes have the highest concentration of mercury, because it is methyl-mercury, which is slow to eliminate from the flesh of each critter that consumes it.

That's not the same stuff that is used in the vaccine. The stuff used in the vaccine (besides being present in extremely tiny amounts - and it's not even present in some versions of vaccine) is the quick-to-eliminate ethyl-mercury that is out of your body and gone very quickly.

Perspective on Swine Flue Vaccine Risk

So, if you've ever eaten a tuna sandwich or a chunk of swordfish (or any of dozens of other ocean predator fish - the kind that's gotten expensive over the years), then you got more mercury, and a longer-lasting form, than you could get from the vaccine... assuming you received a variety that actually contains a mercury-based preservative.

Getting the flu from the vaccine

Doesn't happen.

The whole point of developing immunity is that your immune system must develop anti-bodies to antigens. In most cases, an antigen is a specific configuration of protein (or protein and sugar (and that's not what you think of as sugar...)) on the outside coating of a germ or virus.

The vaccine is made from killed virus, which is actually broken up and the key surface proteins are kept. That's what gets injected into you, and that's what your body reacts to.

Then, if you ever get exposed to the actual virus, the body already has the pattern to make the right anti-bodies as soon as it recognizes that same pattern of protein that the real virus wears on its outer coat.

What's the other one? Oh yeah, Guillain-Barré Syndrome

You might have heard of that as a horrible possibility from the vaccine. Um. No. It's an extremely rare condition involving the immune system attacking peripheral-nerve tissue in the victim's own body.

There is some research suggesting that it might be caused by viral infections, though the mechanism is not known.

The reason that the nut-jobs insist that Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS) is linked to vaccinations, rather than to actual infection by viral diseases is a study from the 1970s. At that time, it was observed that a number of people developed Guillain Barré Syndrome during a flu (a different Swine Flu) and immunization season in the USA, and the government of the time discontinued the campaign.

What is not mentioned is that Guillain Barré Syndrome occurs naturally in the population in small numbers, and that the actual 'background' rate of occurrence was not known, and there was some uncertainty in diagnosing the condition/syndrome. So medical observers at the time were not really able to say whether the observed incidence of Guillain Barré Syndrome and deaths from it were statistically greater than what would otherwise have been naturally occurring.

Basically, the government just made the conservative "least-risk" call. "We're not sure, so we're going to play it safe, in case there's any blame flying around later."  It's also been suggested that bacterial contamination in the vaccine supplies might have contributed to the observed incidence of Guillain Barré syndrome. 

Procedures have tightened up considerably since those days. 

The dreaded 'Adjuvent'

The flu vaccine comes in two varieties for each type of flu:

  • adjuvented
  • non-adjuvented (plain vanilla)

The non-adjuvented vaccine has the dead-virus particles and some preservative in a transport medium (the liquid).

The adjuvented vaccine has the dead-virus particles, some preservative, and the adjuvent, all in a transport medium. The adjuvent is a substance that boosts the effectiveness of the vaccine, such that less of the virus-bits per dose is needed. So, the manufacturers can make many more doses of vaccine in the same amount of time.

Some adjuvented vaccines use squalene as the adjuvent. Some use aluminum. Some use something else.

Squalene is naturally occurring in the human body, and is also used as a supplement for various reasons, including skin preparations and cosmetics. In your body, it's part of the creation of cholesterol, of vitamin D, and of steroid-type hormones, all of which are very necessary to your continued operation.

Some supplemental squalene has been obtained from sharks (fish oil), but that practice is frowned on by everybody except the jerks who eat shark-fin soup. So, industrial squalene is more often obtained from plant sources these days.

Some "scientists" did a study that purported to show that squalene caused Gulf War Syndrome. It was later demonstrated that the design and execution of the study were faulty - bad science - but by then the conspiracy nut-bars had latched onto the original study as 'proof' that their theories were right. "I've made up my mind! Don't try to confuse me with the facts!"

So we have a lot of nonsense circulating that says bad things about flu shots. The idiots who give interviews or who have websites and blogs trying to scare people from getting vaccinated are never going to mention that the "facts" on which they base their claims were thoroughly discredited not long after the original claims were published. So people read that shit and get nervous about being immunized against something that actually CAN make you very sick or kill you.

We are reminded of the brain-dead types who keep forecasting the end of the world, Armageddon, doomsday, "the rapture". Every time it fails to happen as predicted, they ... er... ah... um.... "recalculate" and determine a new date when the wheels will definitely be coming off of the world.

Some unkind souls - like us - like to point out that maybe judgement day, or "the rapture" already happened, and that it's not that the goofballs got their dates wrong - again - but rather that the chosen have already been skimmed off the world and the goofballs didn't get the memo/invitation. They're part of 'the rest of us' that got left behind, and didn't even notice god descending in a flaming chariot to consign us all to hell and save a chosen few. Ooo my! What an ego-buster that would be, after years of (incorrectly?) predicting the 'end of days' and proudly claiming to be among the chosen few (or the chosen 144,000)... and then finding out that they'd missed the boat/chariot, been left off the "A" list. Phew! Sucks to be them. 

By the way - fact - most of those rapture types are fundamentalist "Christians" who put great stock and store in the Old Testament of the Bible, and who despise Jews as being the people who killed [their version of] Christ. If one reads the Old Testament carefully and literally (they do the literal part, but not the careful part), it's plain to see that the "chosen" 144,000 are exclusively members/descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel... that is... Jews. And the rapture crew despises Jews, remember?   So, try not to get your advice from people who have switched off their brains, but forgot to also switch off their mouths.  OK? 

When the conspiracy loons cling to discredited studies, bad "science", and made-up "facts", we lump them in with the end-of-the-world preachers who keep on getting it wrong. In fact, maybe vaccination conspiracy maundering is the day-job of the "we're all going to heaven next month and you're not" gang. Well, hey, it would fit, wouldn't it? Maybe it's a conspiracy... ssshhhh...

Any delusions left?

Well, this wouldn't have much application to middle-aged guys (our target audience), but if you have a young and fertile wife it might be of interest...

Much is being made of the fact that various medical and government bodies have recommended that pregnant women not get the adjuvented vaccine, and get the non-adjuvent vaccine instead. Ooooh then it must be evil and nasty if it has the adjuvent in it!!

Um, no. It's simply not been conclusively proven that the vaccine with adjuvent is as safe as the same vaccine without. Doctors are trained to go with the "least risk" scenario, and especially so with pregnant women. This is because it is not permitted to test drugs and treatments on pregnant women. They have to test on everybody/anybody else. Thus, there can't be a body of research proclaiming the adjuvent to be safe for pregnant women because there's been no testing on pregnant women, because there's not allowed to be testing on pregnant women. Are you reading our lips? Do we need to say it slower or louder?

So, we think that anybody who generalizes from

  • "no study done specifically on pregnant women, so doctors recommending the more-tested non-adjuvent vaccine for pregnant women "    


  • "Jeez, even the doctors think this adjuvent stuff is dangerous"...

. . . is a friggin' idiot, and should not be allowed near a keyboard or a voting booth. Nor the driver's seat of a car, for that matter. Keep sharp objects and power tools away from such people. 

Get your regular flu shot. Get your swine flu shot, and you won't have to worry about catching either one (well, a lot less worry... the immunization is not 100% effective), and you won't have to worry (well, a lot less worry...) about spreading the infection to your spouse, children, grand-children, aged parents, the kindergarten class where your live-in daughter teaches, etc., etc.

You won't be the cause of your entire company being off sick with this year's flu and losing the big contract that would have kept you employed next year.

OK, we've talked this one to death. Either you get it, or you don't.

If this page wasn't where you wanted to be, then from this 'Flu/influenza' page, go back to the home page.

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