You're lying in bed--or wishing you were--feeling like the devil.
Your nose is running like a faucet. You're as achy as a geriatric go-go dancer. Your clothes are sticking to you like a T-shirt in a sauna. Your stomach is turning up, down and all around.
That about sum it up?
Well, lie back, adjust the cool cloth on your forehead and read on. We went to the experts to glean some tips to help you battle the bug that is ravaging your body and put together a primer of sorts to help you understand why you are feeling so lousy, which remedies--prescribed, over-the-counter or homemade--may help you feel better and what you can do to head off the viral villain if you haven't already been bitten.
* Let's begin with the obvious. What is the flu? According to the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, a medical book for practitioners, influenza, also called grippe, grip and, of course, flu, is a "specific acute viral respiratory disease characterized by fever, runny nose, cough, headache, malaise and inflamed respiratory mucous membranes" occurring as an "epidemic in the winter" that may result in "prostration, hemorrhagic bronchitis, pneumonia and sometimes death." Gastrointestinal tract symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea are also common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which monitors flu outbreaks, this year's flu is spreading faster than normal, moving from the West Coast to the East and South in less than a month, sending countless sufferers running for doctors' offices and emergency rooms in search of cures.
And while it seems like everybody is sick now, CDC officials say they have no evidence that this year's bug is claiming more victims than its ancestors.
That was small comfort to 24-year-old Amy, who clutched her down jacket to her shivering frame the other day as she searched the medication aisle of the Giant store in Kettering for relief. "I'm hot, then I'm cold. It hurts all over," she said, acknowledging that she probably should have gotten a flu shot.
Yes, she should have, according to health workers. The single best defense against catching the flu is a flu shot. Not only do children and senior citizens benefit from the vaccination, according to doctors, but even those with compromised immune systems are protected. And while some people who get the shot may come down with the flu as a result, that number is relatively few.
"Anyone can benefit from the flu shot," said Marty Eichelberger, a pediatric surgeon and director of the National Safe Kids Campaign. "Something like the flu goes through the entire population" and the vaccine can prevent it from spreading.
* Are there different kinds of flu?
Eichelberger said influenza can manifest itself in a variety of illnesses. If it attacks the lungs, inflammation occurs, resulting in excess mucous production and coughing. If it attacks the sinuses, it can lead to sinus or ear infection. If it hits the gastrointestinal tract, it may become "stomach flu" with diarrhea and vomiting.
* How long after you are exposed to the flu will you get sick? Symptoms will show within one to four days, with most people getting sick after two days, said Carolyn Bridges, an internist and medical epidemiologist with the CDC influenza division.
* How long are you contagious? Typically you are infectious a day before symptoms occur and as many as five days after. As long as you are coughing little droplets of virus out of your lungs and into the air and blowing your nose and touching things that others might come into contact with, you risk infecting others. It is a popular misconception that you are no longer contagious after symptoms occur, health workers said.
Children are contagious for much longer, Bridges said. They may continue to spread the flu for as long as 10 days because it takes their immune systems a lot longer to kick the virus.
* How can one head off the flu? There are now four antiviral medications on the market--two that have been available for several years and two new ones, Bridges said. All are dispensed by prescription and must be used within the first two days to work, she said, "but they all have various side effects, so people should discuss those with their doctors before taking the medications."
* What does one do to hasten recovery? Doctors recommend rest and liquids. Resting helps the body recover from the wear and tear the virus causes and liquids replenish the lost body fluids and minerals.
Resting at home also has another benefit. It keeps you from spreading your little flu germs all around your classroom or office, which may infect others.
According to health officials, spraying Lysol and using other virus and bacteria inhibiting substances can indeed be helpful in curbing the spread of the virus. Washing down surfaces with a 10 percent bleach solution is also helpful.
If you are sick, be courteous enough to wash your hands after coughing and sneezing into them and blowing your nose. Teach your children to wash their hands at school before eating and to keep their hands out of their mouths. If your child is sick, keep him home from school. And schools should enforce sick child policies and require parents to pick up sick children and keep them home until they have been symptom-free for at least 24 hours, doctors said.
If you are not ill, avoid contact with infected surfaces. Do not use a telephone that someone with the flu uses. Don't handle things that have been handled by infected people, such as keyboards, toys and doorknobs, until they have been washed.
And don't be shy about telling colleagues who are obviously sick to cough into tissues and stay away from your stuff if they fail to take precautions on their own. "The flu virus can live on solid surfaces, such as steel and plastic, for several hours," said Bridges of the CDC. "It can be spread by droplets coughed or sneezed settling onto surfaces" that are then touched by another person who can become infected if they touch their eyes, nose or mouth without washing their hands.
* Does chicken soup cure colds and flu? Chicken soup has no medicinal value in fighting the bug, doctors said. But chicken soup is a good thing to eat while you are sick because it is easily digested. It is a liquid, which is beneficial for flu treatment; it has calories from carbohydrates and proteins, and it provides the body with electrolytes to replenish minerals lost from sweating and vomiting. Drinks like Gatorade and other sports drinks are also helpful in restoring electrolytes, the loss of which leads to lethargy, muscle aches and a general sick feeling, Eichelberger said.
* Is it true that you should stick with the BRAT diet--bananas, rice, applesauce and toast--when you are afflicted with the flu? Light, easily digested foods are best because they are less likely to irritate an upset stomach and when you feel poorly you typically don't feel much like eating heavy and spicy foods.
* Does orange juice fight the flu? Ascorbic acid is an important nutrient in the body's ability to heal itself as well as in the formation of blood cells, bone and tissue, experts said. Since some symptoms of the flu leave you feeling as though you don't want to drink, it is important that what you do take in be nutritious, doctors said.
"Many of the juices are rich in vitamins," said Bridges. "You don't want to drink caffeinated drinks because they can actually act as a diuretic. You want to drink things that are non-alcoholic. Just plain water is good, too, to replace fluids."
* Do you feed a cold and starve a fever, or vice versa? Feed both, if you can. If you are having trouble holding things down, take only clear liquids, in small quantities, frequently, to replace lost fluids to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can exacerbate symptoms of flu and can even be deadly. Severe dehydration is a danger with flu and sometimes requires injection of intravenous fluids to replace lost body fluids.
* At what point should you seek medical attention when suffering from the flu? If the symptoms persist for more than a week or worsen to the point that secondary infection sets in, such as ear infection or pneumonia, doctors said, head for medical attention.
Also, if you feel so bad that you are unable to eat or drink for so many days that severe dehydration and weight loss occur, you should see a doctor.
* When is a fever dangerous in children? Some children may have a temperature of 103 or more and not act sick, while others may become lethargic with a temperature as low as 101, doctors said. Treat the fever with non-aspirin fever reducer after it goes over 101 and watch the child. If he is not acting as though he feels that bad, there is probably no need to contact the doctor. But if the fever goes over 103, call your pediatrician.
For infants, it is a good idea to contact your pediatrician when it reaches 101 because you should get directions from him about administering medication, doctors said.
For upset stomachs, doctors generally recommend acetaminophen, which is less likely to irritate. But other non-aspirin fever reducers, such as Motrin and Advil, last longer and require fewer doses.
Fever can also be treated by using rectal suppositories in children who are unable to hold anything on their stomachs. Doctors warn parents not to use aspirin because of the danger of Reyes Syndrome, a potentially deadly illness in children that can be spurred by aspirin ingestion.
What else can be done to reduce fever? Take the covers off, lower the heat, remove some of the clothes and take off the socks, doctors said. Taking a tepid bath may help. But experts don't recommend bathing feverish flu sufferers with rubbing alcohol, as doctors used to, because shocking a feverish body with cold may cause chills and the system may react by heating up more.
* Does a humidifier help? Moist air cuts down on congestion and makes it easier to breathe. But make sure the humidifier is clean to keep from dispersing mold and bacteria into the air. Don't use a humidifier in a room where the humidity is above 50 percent.
* Is there anything else you can do to keep from getting reinfected? Throw out toothbrushes, lip balms and lipsticks you used while you were ill. Launder bedding and wash down surfaces.
Online and other resources: www.drkoop.com gives advice from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop; www.kidshealth.org/teen/bodymind/body/infection/flu.html; www.drweil.com; for emergency information, Children's Parent Advice Line, 888-884-2327.
A Parental Primer
It was the ninth time that my son spat up that sent us to Children's National Medical Center last week, hoping to martial a medical defense against a stomach flu that had sent his temperature above 103 degrees and left him unable to hold down even a few drops of 7-Up.
Earlier in the day, we had taken Zachary to his pediatrician, but when he seemed to get sicker five hours later, she dispatched us to the emergency room.
According to health care workers, this year's flu has moved fast across the country, sending victims into medical offices and hospital emergency rooms in droves. Navigating a sick child through the emergency room always is a trying experience, but can be even worse at a time when there is such a strain on hospital resources and personnel.
According to health personnel, parents should:
* be specific when describing their child's problem during emergency room registration.
* watch their child closely and alert emergency room personnel to any changes in his condition.
* be patient. Emergency room personnel may be dealing with car crash injuries, pulmonary arrest and other conditions that may be life-threatening.
After seeing the emergency room physician, always follow up with the child's pediatrician.
And, doctors said, get your children vaccinated; 70 to 80 percent of the cases would have been prevented if the children had been vaccinated.