Periodic Trends: The flu fighters

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger


It’s that time of the year again — time to break out our cough drops, tissues, tea, vitamin C, soup and medicine. It’s cold and flu season.

The common cold is caused by a virus called the rhinovirus, which has about 200 different variants. So, the more colds you get, the more you’re immune to them in the future. If you’re exposed to a virus you already had, you might get a sniffle or two at the most. So why is it called a cold anyway? Winter’s cold and nasty weather dries out mucus membranes, one of the first lines of defense our immune system maintains. The virus is then easy to catch, especially in combination with your roommates or classmates coughing and blowing their noses everywhere.

Once inside our bodies, it takes a day or two for the virus to multiply before it targets the respiratory tract. This occurs predominately in the throat, which is why our throats are swollen and sore a couple days before we get other symptoms when the virus spreads.

Alright, so you went to throw the garbage out without a coat on and you’re starting to get symptoms. Now what? Most of us take medication that includes drugs like dextromethorphan, guaifenesin and pseudoephedrine that act as cough suppressants, expectorants and decongestants, respectively. Brands such as Robitussin, Nyquil/Dayquil, Delsym or Sudafed are just brand names for these drugs in different amounts and variations with pain killers and/or anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. In combination, these usually work by reducing fever and swelling, loosening mucus, numbing, etc. Antibiotics, however, don’t affect viruses, only bacterial infections.

Many may believe symptoms are caused by the cold or flu virus itself, but that’s not entirely true. Years of evolutionary adaptations have allowed our bodies to devise a way to defeat these tiny menaces, even if it makes us miserable for a few days. For example, a fever’s increase in body temperature slows down virus reproduction because the body’s chemical reactions that allow viruses to reproduce occur normally at 98.6 degrees F. Mucus is produced from goblet cells to slow down the spread of the virus. We cough to expel the mucus and virus, even vomiting sometimes to get rid of pathogens.

No one wants to be sick, but some symptoms are what’s keeping cells alive. However, our bodies don’t exactly need a 103 degree fever to get the job done. Then again, symptoms like muscle aches, sore throat and bronchitis are directly caused by the viruses killing our cells.

The fact is that viruses are not technically living organisms. Scientists have a list of criteria that a prospected organism must fall into in order to be considered “alive,” and viruses only meet some of them. Viruses need host cells to reproduce. This is where we come in. It takes about seven to 14 days for our immune systems to devise a way to knock out these little buggers.

The flu vaccine is often free to most and can prevent many strains of the flu. Each year, scientists predict what strains may be the most prevalent and pack a few inactive viruses into the shot. This prepares the body’s immune response without the virus making you sick. If you get the flu after receiving the shot, it’s not because it wasn’t effective, you probably just caught a different strain of the flu than what was administered.

Cold and flu season is miserable, especially on a college campus where viruses can spread like wildfire, but with proper precautions, you can help reduce the spread and keep our campus healthy.

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