The winter and spring months are notorious for waves of influenza cases around the country. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. While most cases are mild and resolve themselves within a few days, for some patients it can be life threatening, due to severe complications that can arise. It is worthwhile, therefore, to know a little bit about it; how it spreads, how you can prevent it, and what to do if you are infected.

What is Influenza?

Influenza is a group of viruses in humans (and other animals) that are fairly easily spread through contact and causes a predictable set of symptoms. There are two sub-sets: Influenza A and Influenza B.

What is the Difference between Influenza A and B?

Influenza B symptoms usually include the following:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny and stuffy nose
  • muscle and body aches
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • sometimes diarrhea or vomiting.

Although diarrhea and vomiting are more commonly seen in kids with the flu. It generally can last 5-7 days and is usually the less severe type of the two virus groups. In 2020 Web MD and the LA Times report that a large proportion of Influenza B cases are being seen in children and young adults.

Influenza A (“the Flu”) symptoms are usually headache and body ache, though they can also be very similar to the B virus symptoms. The A virus is usually considered more dangerous. For the 2022-2023 flu season, the CDC estimates that 17,000 to 98,000 deaths in the U.S. occurred because of complications related to Influenza infection.

A person is contagious from the initial infection with Influenza, even before symptoms begin; making it important for everyone to be mindful of behaviors that can stop the spread/transmission of the disease. The period of incubation is from 2-4 days before symptoms start . The patient can feel the worst symptoms for the first 3-4 days after they begin, but may linger up to a week.

How is the Flu spread?

The flu is spread primarily through respiratory droplets produced when a infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

How can I prevent getting/spreading Influenza?

There are a number of behaviors that can help you prevent catching the flu, even if you are exposed. It is spread through the air, and less commonly on surfaces and by personal contact.  The most obvious way to avoid it is to avoid people who are sick. However, since – as stated above – a person can be contagious before symptoms start, that can be tricky. Making sure to wash your hands adequately after touching those who may be ill, or after outings into crowded public spaces can help. It is always a good idea to avoid touching your face (eyes, nose and mouth) if your hands are not clean as these are easy entry areas for infectious diseases like the flu.

Getting good sleep is another important behavior, as is maintaining a healthy diet. Both of these help your natural immune system defenses function optimally to fight off any “invaders” you come in contact with.

It is recommended that you stay home from work/school/events for 24 hours after your fever breaks.

What about getting the Flu shot?

Every year the CDC and WHO analyze what varieties of the A and B Influenza viruses are likely to enter the population, based on past years and international trends. There are literally hundreds of mutations of these viruses in the environment at any time. The most likely ones (usually 2 A strains and 1-2 B strains) are then put into a vaccine. Some years the prediction is uncannily good, others not as much.

The decision whether to get or not get a flu shot should be an individual one between each patient and their medical provider.

Some factors to consider are:

  • Are you immune compromised or have a generally weak immune system due to some other health issues?
  • Are you likely to be exposed to more dangerous strains because of work or travel?
  • Have you had Influenza before?
  • If you have, how often or how severe were the symptoms?

Some people are required by their jobs to have a vaccine, but need to remain mindful that this will not necessarily prevent them from contracting another strain or being able to spread the flu.

What do I do if I get the flu?

First of all, try to limit exposing others to the virus. This will stop the spread of Influenza in the community at large. As far as taking care of yourself, a number of things will help you recover from Influenza more quickly. Get plenty of bed rest and up your fluid intake. Eat a light but healthful diet, restricting or eliminating as much processed food, sugars, greasy foods, dairy and fruit juice as possible. Try to take in whole fruits, as they are full of fiber and fluid as well as vitamins and not as densely sugary as juice is. High risk, immune compromised patients or those who tend to get Influenza a lot are often advised to get some sort of antiviral medication. These, like all meds have side effects so this is a decision each person should discuss with their doctor to decide if it’s appropriate for them.

What does Chinese Medicine offer for Influenza patients?

Infectious diseases in Chinese Medicine are traditionally referred to as “Evil Winds”. This described an invasion of the body by an outside actor. There are acupuncture points that help the body expel and fight off these “winds”, reduce fever and body aches and calm nausea. Many Chinese herbal formulas do the same.

As in any disease process, we believe that prevention is always the best form of remedy. Seeking Chinese Medicine care through acupuncture and herbs can increase the strength of the immune systems (the Chinese Lung “Wei”-defensive function and the Spleen/Stomach digestive systems). By improving the function and health of these vital organ systems, one’s body can become more resilient to fighting off invasive viruses like Influenza. In a strong system, the invader is handled swiftly and often with few disruptive symptoms. This is, in our opinion, the best way to move into and through yet another “Flu Season” with health and confidence that your body is able to handle the challenge.