A Closer Look at How the Flu Affects Your Body

Laura Haynes, professor of immunology at the University of Connecticut, recently published her flu research in The Conversation. This research covers how our bodies react when infected by the influenza virus and what causes the typical symptoms. On average, 200,000 Americans require hospitalization due to this virus each year, and up to 50,000 will die. The flu is a serious problem and last year’s outbreak was the worst in 40 years. The more we know about the flu, the better, so we will share the key points of Haynes’s research.

How the Flu Starts

Influenza infects people through their respiratory tract, which includes the nose, throat, and lungs. Normally, people introduce the virus from their hands, since our hands come in contact with so many different objects every day. If it is on your hands and you touch your face, you introduce the virus into your body. The virus then travels down your respiratory tract and binds to the cells lining the lung airways. It “hijacks the protein manufacturing machinery of the cell,” and creates its own viral proteins. This allows the virus to go on and take over the adjacent cells and keep spreading. Surprisingly, the infection is not what causes a headache, sore muscles, fever, cough, and sore throat.

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How the Body Responds

In reality, it is actually the body’s immune system responding to the infection that causes the uncomfortable flu symptoms. When the immune system recognizes the infection, it uses hormone-like molecules to “sound the alarm.” One kind of molecule, cytokines, produces the components needed to fight the virus. The other kind, chemokines, then direct those components to the infection. T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, multiply in the lymph nodes around the nose and throat to combat the flu virus. This is what causes pain and swelling in these lymph nodes. This type of white blood cell also moves on to the lungs to combat the infection there. The body will naturally cause a buildup of mucus in the lungs when it notices the infection. This is what triggers your cough, which is your body’s natural reflex to clear your airways.

You may be wondering about some of the other influenza symptoms we have not yet discussed, like the fever, headache, and muscle aches. These symptoms are purely systemic, meaning that they are a natural response to your body fighting the infection. There are not specific cells that cause the discomfort, but the symptoms come with the activated immune system.

Give Yourself Proper Care

While the flu is serious for anyone who is infected, it is especially disconcerting in children and the elderly. Both have weakened immune systems that cannot tolerate the virus as well. In the elderly, the flu can cause lasting damage that may require the use of a cane or walker and even lasting lung damage. In order to avoid the influenza virus this winter, make sure you wash your hands frequently and avoid others who are sick. If you start to notice some flu-like symptoms, make sure you take the time to rest. Your body needs time to recover and overexerting yourself will not help matters. If you experience serious symptoms, see a doctor for further direction.

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Lacey Jolley

I love exploring, experiencing new places, and eating good food! I'm amazed every day at how well the Earth provides for us, and I want to return the favor. I hope to help others learn how we can make our world a better, cleaner place.

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