It’s the 1st week of October, and Halloween decorations and candy sales have already begun. Drug stores are flashing florescent “flu shots – $20” signs. I’m barely over my seasonal hurricane anxiety. No wonder the squirrels are so nervous–so much to attend to and there’s never enough time!
What if we were to think about flu shots as deeply as we ponder whether to get the big size bag of mixed mini Snickers, Three Musketeers, and M&M’s, or buy 2 and get the 3rd pack free of full size Hershey bars?
Is getting the flu really any worse than eating all those left over candy bars? Should you get the shot and make plans to give the left over Halloween candy to your non-organic, sugar eating, mainstream neighbor? Should you get the shot but keep the candy? Should you skip the shot and the candy completely? Should you skip the shot and buy organic candy?
The Villain–The Virus
There are many viruses in our world. With so many out there, we need categories, subcategories, titles, and names to keep track of them all. There are a bunch of “flu viruses,” but each one of the group is an individual and deserves its own name. What is termed the “flu virus” actually has a proper scientific name–it is the name that the virus would use to sign all of its official documents.
Science terms the “flu” as influenza. There are many influenza viruses that do not affect humans, and there are a bunch that do affect humans. There is one type that affects both human and animals.
There are three broad categories of influenza viruses that affect humans: A, B, and C. How is that for simple? Type A is the most concerning category as these are the viruses that affect us humans and certain animals. Since the Type A viruses have so many potential hosts (humans and animals), it can spread rapidly and has a more genetically complicated structure than Type B and C. Common hosts for the Type A influenza virus are monkeys, pigs, chickens, and humans.
The Hero–Your Immune System
Humans have been around for a long time. Our immune system is one of the main reasons we have been able to survive for so long. Yes, we live in a world full of dirt, viruses, bacteria, fungus, parasites, splinters, and bad drivers. However, we happen to have a dynamic, powerful, and very successful immune system which protects us from these threats.
In addition to the every day defenses that we share with animals–things like skin, hair, stomach acid, roaming cells called macrophages that eat the occasional invader–we also have a specialized system of cells that can react to viral invasions known as the “immune response.” This system is only reserved for special occasions like big viral invasions that have overwhelmed our daily “non-specific” defenses.
Our immune response uses antibodies and specialized “Killer T-Cells” that are specifically designed to kill off one specific invader. For example, if the influenza virus called H1N1 invades, your smart immune cells will develop a specific “weapon,” antibodies, and particular Killer T-Cells, just for that virus. The time that immune response is figuring out the best weapons for the invader, and then using the antibodies and Killer T-Cells” against the virus is the time when you feel sick. You may have a fever, feel tired, feel achy, have a sore throat, and be generally grumpy and whiny.
But wait, there’s more!
Your cells will remember the exact recipe for the antibodies and Killer T-Cells in case that specific virus ever invades you again. The second time this virus comes at you, it will be knocked out much faster because the specialized memory cells will kick the antibody producing cells and Killer T-Cells into action right away. This second fast response based on the memory of the first one is called “immunity.” Usually, you won’t even feel sick the next time this virus invades your body because your immune system took care of things so quickly and efficiently that no symptoms arose.
Vaccinations try to mimic the process outlined above. The idea is to give you a small dose (often the virus is killed or disected to make it inactive) that will kick off your immune response. The result will be the creation of memory cells for that specific virus–so the second time you are invaded by that virus, which would happen while you were out living your life, your immune response will kick in quickly and effectively to stop the invasion before you ever notice it.
The catch–it’s all about the details. You can only have a vaccination for one specific virus. If you are vaccinated for the virus called H1N1, you are not protected from the virus called H2N2. This is why there is so much speculation about the exact virus that will be invading in any particular year–we have get the right one to make the vaccination or else we will effectively miss the target.
The virus that causes the flu, influenza, is different than the virus that causes the common cold, the rhinovirus. Your flu vaccination can prevent “the flu,” but it will not prevent the common cold. And remember, it will only prevent one specific type of influenza virus.
What is the flu anyway?
The flu is technically the group of symptoms we feel as our body responds to the influenza virus. The illness called the flu is actually the set of symptoms that we feel as our immune response is staging the attack on the virus. The immune response (using antibodies and killer cells) is only used after the virus is already in our body and actively trying to expand its presence inside of our cells. We don’t have the flu when the virus is sitting on the counter top. We “have the flu” when the virus has already invaded us and our immune system is responding to the invaders.
It takes time and energy to mount our counter attack. We feel tired because most of our energy is being directed to the needs of the immune response. Our body doesn’t really care about work, social, or family obligations when it is being invaded by a virus. Our body’s wisdom says that there is nothing more important right now than cutting off this invasion, killing the invaders, and repairing the damage they caused.
What’s so scary about the flu?
As long as your immune response is healthy, the main scary thing about the flu is feeling bad for a week or two, and missing a bunch of obligations. The bonus is that once you are over it, you will be immune to this virus for the rest of your life thanks to your dedicated memory cells.
If your immune response is not so healthy, there is more to be concerned about. Flu viruses as a group tend to lodge themselves in the respiratory system (lungs) or the digestive system (stomach, intestines). With breathing being the important function that it is, you obviously don’t want excessive damage to your lungs. Similarly, you need to have healthy digestion in order to survive, so let’s not have an excessive infection in the important digestive organs either!
Without a strong immune response, the infection grows and grows and this can put a person in serious risk of death from excessive organ damage. This is why younger children (they are still developing their immune response), older people (their immune system is tired), people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, people on chemotherapy (chemotherapy decreases immune function), people with immune disease, and anyone else who has a decreased immune response need to pay more attention to flu prevention than people with healthy immune responses.
The main idea of prevention is to keep the virus out of your system. Remember, a flu on the counter top is not making you sick until it gets inside your skin.
Vaccinations do not prevent the virus from invading your body, they promote a quick immune response to the invasion. If you choose to have the vaccination, remember that you can add other methods of prevention to your strategy of flu prevention.
My motto is that it is easier to sweep the front steps than it is to vacuum the house. This means it is easier to keep the virus out of my body than it is to get rid of it once it is inside.
How does the virus get in?
Most often influenza viruses get inside humans by getting into the nose or mouth, then making their way down the trachea (wind pipe) toward the lungs. The phlegm sneezed or coughed up from a person infected with the virus often contains more viruses looking for a new place to live–like another person’s nose, mouth, or respiratory system. So, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze is a basic courtesy. Washing your hands also prevents entry because who knows what your hands have picked up along their journey so far today.
Some influenza viruses prefer to get into your digestive tract–these go down your food tube (esophagus) and try to set up shop in your stomach or intestines. Washing hands prior to food preparation reduces this risk. Washing your veggies and fruits prior to eating them, ensuring that the food you are eating is prepared in a clean kitchen, and is clean itself also prevents entrance via this route.
Open skin sores, cuts, wounds, and surgical scars are other potential entrance points for viruses.
Sweeping the front steps to your body
Clean, clean, clean–wash your hands, and keep your food preparation area, utensils and food clean. Humans were able to effectively wash their hands prior to the invention of chemical hand sanitizers–your basic soap and water hand washing will do!
When viruses travel in mucus particles in the air from sneezing and coughing, this is called “airborne.” The air in your home or office can be easily cleaned by diffusing essential oils that have viral killing properties. This simple solution works well and it smells good! (Diffuser and more information on essential oils).
Macrophages Working–Give’ em a Break!
Ensure your cleaning staff is happy–you have millions of roaming cells cleaning up the occasional viral invader all the time. These cells, called macrophages, appreciate good food, water, plenty of air and rest. Don’t over load their capacity by leaving open cuts unattended, stop sticking your dirty hands in your mouth, eyes, and nose, and don’t eat unwashed food or with unclean utensils.
Macrophages appreciate uninterrupted time do their work–multitasking is not their specialty. When you sleep, they can work. Need a reason for a nap? Need an excuse to sleep when you feel tired? Here it is – “I’m supporting my macrophages–leave me alone.”
What else can you do?
Do all the things you were probably told to do before you were 10 years old–put on a jacket when you go out in the cold, wipe your nose with a tissue, wash your hands, sleep when you are tired, drink plenty of water, and have some fun–do we need one more official study that happiness and good immune function go hand in hand? (In case you need a study: The Immune System and Happiness.)
Should you get a flu vaccination?
My hope is that with clear information, you can think about your health with clarity rather than fear. Ask your doctor about your immune system and how it works against the flu. Let your doctor talk with you about health rather than disease.
The decision about the flu vaccination is yours. Health decisions deserve time and attention–give yourself the time to understand the details. Everyone is unique, which means you are unique. Assess your health, history, and lifestyle to make the right decision for you at this time in your life.
Should you eat the candy?
That’s a hard question to answer!
Tell me more…
I created an entire course about the immune system and viruses. Learn more about it here: Viruses and The Immune System.