Mug and glasses with tissues strewn about
Health

It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Sickness: Cold and Flu Season

Feature photo by Kelly Sikkema

EEEEverywhere you go.

Season’s Greetings everyone. By season, I mean cold and flu season of course. And by greetings, I mean I hope a plague of disease does not descend upon your house.

School is back in session, there’s a crisp feeling in the air, and the viruses are starting to make the rounds.

Bacteria versus Virus

First, let’s explore some basic microbiology. “Germs” are all around us. They are all over us. I think I see some on you right now! J/k, you can’t see them, hence the micro bit. But they are literally everywhere. The term “germs” typically refer to two different types of microorganisms that can cause illnesses: Bacteria and Viruses.

People are multicellular (eukaryotic) organisms seeing as you have lots and lots of different cell types, that make up tissues, that make up organs, that make up organ systems, that work together to make YOU. On the other hand, bacteria are prokaryotic, which means the entire organism exists within a single cell. Bacteria can reproduce pretty quickly in certain conditions and form colonies.

Bacterial cell with labeled organelles
Bacteria cell

Many types of bacteria can be beneficial, think your helpful gut bacteria Lactobacillus. BUT there are definitely some pathogenic ones that will make you ill, such as Salmonella. When you have a bacterial infection, something like a Staph infection (Staphylococcus), you can be prescribed an antibiotic. These work by inhibiting reproduction of the bacteria by weakening the cell wall or other organelles needed for reproduction. Bacteria have DNA that is contained within a single, circular chromosome.

Rhinovirus
Rhinovirus

A virus is a whole different type of microorganism. For one, it’s a lot smaller. The biggest difference is the fact that it is not a cell. It needs a host to survive and reproduce. Is it actually ALIVE then? I mean maybe, but not within the current biological definition of alive. There are antiviral medications for specific conditions, but they work differently than an antibiotic and they don’t cover a large range of viruses. Virus are essentially coated bits of nucleic acids, sometimes DNA, sometimes RNA. They can mutate very quickly.

Colds and Flu

Colds and flu are both viral respiratory infections but there are some big differences. A cold is generally much milder and gradual to onset. The “common cold” is a bit of a catch-all, but it’s typically attributed to rhinovirus. Symptoms include some nose stuffiness and/or runniness, a cough, sneezing, etc. The best advice is to ride out a cold, as miserable as it may be.

In contrast, the flu is caused by influenza and comes on much quicker and with more intensity. Flu has multiple strains and it mutates rather quickly. Flu is really no joke and can incapacitate healthy individuals. People die every year from flu. Big symptoms differences for flu (as opposed to a cold) include fever, body aches, chills, and extreme fatigue, in addition to sneezing, coughing and sore throat. Tamiflu is an antiviral that should be given immediately when the flu is suspected. While there is a rapid flu test that can be performed at the doctor’s office, more accurate diagnosis and typing require a viral culture (taking a sample and letting it grow in a lab). Tamiflu is an antiviral that should be given immediately when the flu is suspected from symptoms.

In addition to practicing good handwashing (uh duh, but little kids are notoriously bad at this) the best preventive measure you can take is getting a flu shot. Oh, are you surprised I advocate for vaccination? The blog is called Raised on Love and Science. Is the flu vaccine perfect? No, far from it. Is it still better than nothing? I would say so (and most of the doctors that I have inquired with agree).

*Disclaimer in all of this: If anyone is experiencing breathing difficulties or have gone from fine to really ill in a short amount of time, SEEK MEDICAL CARE! The flu can be scarier than you think, especially in kids.*

 

The Reason for the Season

Even though there is a defined cold and flu “season” (Octoberish-Aprilish depending on where you live), you can technically catch a cold or flu at ANY time of the year. It’s just statitstically much less likely if it’s outside the cooler months. . Maybe you notice that it corresponds, pretty close at least, to most of the school year? AWESOME. Have you ever asked yourself why colds and flue spike during the cooler months of the year? Well, even if you didn’t, I did.

There are a couple of theories (and no, going out into the cold doesn’t seem to be the cause).

  • It’s in the air, literally. Cold weather is typically drier. This will dry out, oh here we go, your mucous membranes. So it’s harder for those physical barriers to keep the viral particles out. In addition, cooler temperatures tend to preserve viral particle for longer periods of time, so they hang around a lot longer waiting to be picked up.
  • Close quarters. We’re all inside more during the winter, because it’s cold, obviously. Kids are also more likely to be at daycare or school, remember SHARING IS CARING. No, sharing is gross.
  • UV exposure is less during the winter months. Viral particles that would have been damaged or killed from UV exposure have a better chance at sticking around and finding a host.
  • We go outside less and our Vitamin D levels decrease which could have an effect on immunity.

What Should I do?

Kids are vectors for all things gross as any parent/teacher/person who has ever encountered a child can tell you.  Chances are that they will pick up SOMETHING and very likely it will affect multiple people in your house. The most direct way to limit passing a bug around your house is prevention. Things like:

  • Getting your flu shot
  • Wash your hands (and try to get the kids to wash their hands too)
  • We used a diluted bleach solution to kill all the things when I worked in a laboratory. They had lots of gross stuff so it seems like a good idea to use on appropriate surfaces that experience a lot of hand exposure in the house. We would take about a capful of bleach and add it to a gallon of water. Wipe surfaces with the solution and then let it sit for 5 minutes (it’s really important to do this or it may not be entirely effective). Rinse with water and let it air dry. You probably should use this for sanitation purposes and not generic cleaning (i.e. clean the surface normally if it is dirty and if you need to make sure all the germs are gone, followup with the bleach solution.)
  • Fresh air is good, open a window when you can (I know it’s cold, so this is only for when it’s practical).
  • While some advocate for using a humidifier (to remedy the moisture situation discussed earlier), you must clean these REGULARLY or they end up growing their own weird microbes that circulate into the air as well

Regardless of how prepared we are, the reality is that: Winter is coming. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Has a bug already hit your kids this year? Are you doing anything special to keep them (and yourself) healthy? Leave a comment below.

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