Feeling a little stuffy? Tickle in the back of your throat? You have become the subject of microscopic cold or flu germs!
The word “germ” is used commonly to describe microorganisms, like bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are everywhere and make up about 60% of the living matter found here on earth! Not all bacteria are bad; in fact there are only about 50 species of bacteria that can cause infections in humans. It is the viruses that we need to be more careful of because they can easily be spread around. Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by a virus. The flu is typically transmitted through the air by coughs and sneezes. Liquid droplets of water containing the virus are sprayed around and land on nearby surfaces. The virus can then be picked up by the next person who touches that surface. The virus is given a one-way ticket into the body when the person touches their face (mouth, eyes, nose) or in the process of eating puts their fingers in their mouth. One statistic suggests that we touch our face at least 250 times a day! That is a LOT of opportunity for a virus to infect you!
In our environment there are viruses lying around in wait for a host cell to come along. They can enter us through the nose, mouth or breaks in our skin (cuts and scrapes). Once they have made their way inside, they find a host cell to infect. Cold and flu viruses attack cells that line the respiratory or digestive tracts. Once infected with a virus, it spreads quickly throughout your body. If an infected person sneezed near you, chances are you inhaled particles of the virus. The virus attacks the cells lining your sinuses and begins to rapidly reproduce, creating new viruses. The host cells break (where the virus attacked first), allowing the new viruses to spread into your bloodstream and lungs. Fluid flows into your nasal passages from the lost cells lining your sinuses, giving you a runny nose. Contained within the fluid that drips down your throat there are viruses. These viruses attack the cells lining your throat and give you a sore throat. Viruses in your bloodstream move around your body and can attack muscle cells, causing muscle aches.
Fortunately, inside your body you have an amazing protection mechanism called the immune system! Your immune system defends you against millions of microbes, bacteria, parasites, viruses, and toxins that are trying to invade your body every day. A very important part of your immune system is your white blood cells (WBC). One type of white blood cell produces something that is called an antibody. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that respond to a specific bacteria, virus or toxin (antigen). When a virus tries to invade your body, the antibodies specific to it bind with it and disable the chemical action of the virus. The most amazing thing is that these WBCs have a memory of invading bacteria and viruses and can recognize them. If you have caught the virus before, your body will already have antibodies for it. The WBCs just have to recognize the virus and send out the correct antibodies to render the virus ineffective. If you haven’t had the virus before, you will become sick and your WBCs have to learn to make new antibodies.
Stopping the spread of these infectious diseases is the first line of defence when it comes to cold and flu season. There are many things that you can do to reduce your chances of becoming infected, including getting a flu vaccine and covering your mouth before coughing or sneezing (cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow – never cough into your hands because then you will spread the germs when you next touch a surface). One of the easiest and most effective ways to stop the spread is to wash your hands! The flu virus can be inactivated by soap and the mechanical action of scrubbing, which means that frequent hand washing can reduce the risk of exposure!
Here is what the Thunder Bay District Health Unit suggests you do to properly wash your hands:
• Wet your hands with warm running water.
• Add soap, and then rub your hands together, making a soapy lather. Do this away from the running water for at least 15 seconds, being careful not to wash the lather away. Wash the front and back of your hands, as well as between your fingers and under your nails.
• Rinse your hands well under warm running water. Leave the water running.
• Dry your hands with a paper towel.
• Turn off the water with the same paper towel and throw it in the garbage.