The Life and Times of the Flu Virus

Cold and Flu season: It's here! 

This is the time of year we begin hearing ads for disinfectants, medicines, and tissues. People become suspicious of anyone who sneezes. But what is "the flu" exactly and how does it actually work?

The flu and colds are both caused by viruses. Viruses are tiny particles that require a cell from a living host to reproduce, like a parasite. They carry the instructions for reproduction inside them but lack the cellular equipment to do it, so they use yours. Each type of virus needs certain types of cells within your body. The Flu virus uses the cells that line the respiratory or digestive tract. 
First, it puts its genetic information into a cell. This genetic information takes control of the cell's equipment and uses it to make new viruses. They then make their escape and each seek out more cells to use for reproduction. Fortunately, humans usually come equipped with impressive internal defenses. 
The flu virus travels on particles in the air emitted from an infected person. It isn't caused by getting cold. The flu appears to have a "season" because people are spending more time packed together indoors and it can't survive in the hot humid Oklahoma summer environment as well. Flu viruses prefer the dry and cold, so it's simply more prevalent in the winter time. They can live on surfaces much longer in the winter and do not require as direct a transmission from host to host to survive. 

A virus' susceptibility to heat explains fevers. Fevers are your body's way of creating an unlivable and unproductive environment for the invaders so that the warrior cells can get them under control.

A very important fact to know is that viruses are not like bacteria. Antibiotics do nothing to fight them them and may even prevent a return to health if taken unnecessarily by aiding in the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial infections while your immune system is already busy fighting the virus. Unless you've acquired a bacterial infection, don't use them.

Antiviral agents (like Tamiflu or Relenza) don't kill a virus, they inhibit its reproduction process. Remember, there are always side effects involved with any drug and antivirals are not always recommended for otherwise healthy individuals. New strains of viruses have been popping up in recent years with resistance to current antivirals. So far, studies have not linked it to abuse of antiviral agents. However, the World Health Organization still worries that this may be a contributing factor. 1 Be sure to speak with your doctor.

Tips for Assisting your Immune System:

Unfortunately there isn't a single magic pill one can take to give themselves super defenses. There really doesn't appear to be any shortcuts. According to one Harvard Medical School publication you should always treat products claiming to "boost" the immune system with skepticism. 2 The immune system is such a mind-bogglingly complex machine with so many moving parts, actions, and interactions that scientists have been challenged to understand the range of effects each vitamin and mineral has. It would appear, so far, that these general rules might give the best chance to fortify your defenses while combatting the germy invaders: 

Healthy Foods

Fruits and veggies! Scientists have linked general nutrient deficiencies to compromised immune responses as observed in countries where widespread malnutrition is a problem. Proper balances of vitamins and nutrients ensure that all your interrelated systems can function optimally. There are certain nutrients that we know have important roles in defense. Eating properly and not relying simply on vitamin supplementation is the best way to go. The key word is  balance . More isn't necessarily better; seriously overloading on any particular vitamin hasn't proved to illicit any better of an immune response.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is a real problem within the United States. 3 It is believed that fears about skin cancer with sun exposure and our ever increasing indoor lifestyles have attributed to this. The winter sees the greatest risk of deficiency and Vitamin D appears to play an important role in the immune system. This is one vitamin that you may need to supplement.

Drink Water

Trying to stay hydrated through coffee, soda or energy drinks isn't the way to do it. Every tiny part of your body needs water to function correctly and it is especially important when you are already sick and feverish. Water is a type of fuel - refuel your body so it can fight.

Hand Hygiene

Wash your hands! Reducing the amount of work your little warrior cells have to do just makes good sense. (We'll cover the science behind hand washing soon. Aren't you excited?)


Think of sleep like a security and cleaning software on your computer. It is one of the most important things that you can do to keep yourself healthy and to recover when you're already sick. If rest is limited and/or interrupted your body systems don't have time to repair, refuel, and reboot properly. Sleep deficiency is strongly linked to both physical and psychological ailments. 4

  1. "Antiviral Drug Resistance." WHO. World Heath Organization, 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
  2. "How to Boost Your Immune System." Harvard Health Publications - Harvard Medical School. Harvard Health Publications, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. <>.
  3. Podd, Daniel. "Hypovitaminosis D." Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants 28.2 (2015): 20-26. Print.
  4. Bryant, P. A., Trinder, J., & Curtis, N. (2004). Sick and tired: Does sleep have a vital role in the immune system? Nature Reviews, Immunology, 4(6), 457-67. doi:  Why Is Sleep Important? National Institutes of Health. U.S Departments of Health and Human Services. 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2015

Fun Fact:

About 1 in 4 individuals will sneeze in response to sudden exposure to bright light. This is called 
the photic sneeze phenomenon or more 
officially as ACHOO syndrome: 

"Autosomal Cholinergic Helio-Ophtalmologic Outburst" (Yes. Seriously.) 

No one is sure why this happens.

Mary C Kirk, MD, PLLC
6465 South Yale, Ste 605
Tulsa, OK  74136