Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Swine flu: How it felt and what I learnt

I went on holiday a couple of weeks back with my Wife. We were all excited and the holiday started well. During the holiday though I caught flu. At the time I just thought it was normal flu. I didn't realise it was probably swine flu since that's the one doing the rounds at the moment and it was the beginning of July. Not your normal time to catch it.

Any way I thought I'd blog about it because for me it was actually a fascinating experience. Literally feeling a virus go through my body from the early stages to the end it not only reminded me of some very recent research I've blogged about but also some of the age old wisdom around illness. I thought I'd describe what happened for the purpose of sharing.

Also if anyone is reading this and is worried about Swine flu I thought it might put them at ease because my experience was of just about the mildest flu I've ever had. Sure I was exhausted to say the least. I just had to go to bed for a few days. I couldn't sleep because I was either too hot or too cold. When it's 30 degrees c and you're freezing you know you're ill. You also regret only packing summer clothes for your holiday. Other than that though it wasn't anything to fear. At no point did it seem dangerous.

I also find that every time I come back from holiday to work, and particularly from illness, that my brain is effectively a slob. I forget how much mental strain it goes through in even the easiest day. Focusing on reports, meetings or development problems. Yet the way I back up to speed follows standard training principles like any thing else. I think everyone realises this but has never quite linked the two together. I'm saying that not only can you think of the brain as being a muscle. You can also train it like one to and that's just what I do when I get back and need to get my brain fitness back up pronto.

How it began
So how did it all start. Given the basic fact that the incubation period for flu is around 4 days. So while I got ill on holiday I could have caught it at any point beforehand and can't tell exactly where I caught it.

Beforehand I noticed a slight rash around my left elbow. I've had this before sometimes on both elbows and have absolutely no idea where it comes from. One idea relevant to this post is that there are lymph nodes in this particular area. the rash seems to spread out much like a puddle and could reflect blood or lymph moving around the area from a central point. given that flu is a virus it would make sense that maybe the virus was first picked up in this region of my body (I haven now idea how it got there) or atleast this is a visual example that's also maybe repeated at other sites in my body that I can't see.

The first thing I noticed when I actually started coming down with flu is how it felt like my body was being invaded. It made me think of the recent presentation I blogged about showing how bacteria have an amazing communication system. I wonder whether viruses have a similar type of system in place.

I noticed I was ill because I was incredibly tired all of a sudden. So I went to bed really early. But then I woke up during the night either in a sweat or feeling terribly cold. Either way I'd been feeling very slight symptoms like a small cough and slight tickly through. But this is when I started to realise I was going to get ill. The strange thing about this flu is that I seemed to go through the normal stages I remembered from prevoious bouts of flu. Like intense sweats, feeling hot then cold. Then having lots of phlegm and coughing. But each stage passed very quickly.

I'd swear I went through the first two stages in the first night. I could feel my lymph nodes swelling and sensitivity to cold made me feel like my body was abandoning all normal functioning and going on a state of alert. Basically diverting all spare energy and resources to fighting the infection.

The basic way flu infects us if by commandeering cells that live in our body, taking them over and using the cells replication process to manufacturer new cells containing the virus. So it's much like a foreign invader trying to take over your body. You're notr in control of this. It's your bodies white blood cells that are your main soldiers doing battle and the lymph nodes are the training and development stations. The lymph and blood network is how these cells get around the body to where they're needed.

The basic way our bodies fight infection is through identify rogue cells, adding a chemical marker in many cases and then the soldiers (white blood cells from the thymus (Killer T cells) or bone marrow (B cells)) come along and literally destroy these marked cells. They either eat the cells or drink their contents. Yep I'm gonna paint a bloody picture here for the fun of it. Of course some of these cells hide themselves in clever ways so they can avoid detection. All this carnage leads to a lot of waste. As far as I know that's where the phlegm comes in. it's your bodies way of getting rid of the things it doesn't want hanging around your body. in colds and flu we get a lot of phlegm in our lungs because that's normally where the virus enters and thus where the fight is fiercest. so the waste accumulates there.

If it sounds like the kind of battle that we read about in story books it's because in a lot of ways it is. Our defense systems do mimic on a tiny scale those events we're used to seeing in movies.

Anyway with this brief introduction you might then understand how I could see the process of getting ill and then getting well as a series of battles going on inside my body. I could tell who was winning by the stage I was at. When I was hot and cold and my senses were all over the place. I was getting extra sensitive to things so foods I normally liked made me feel sick. Things like that. I think this often happens when my body is stressed and it happened in this case. this is when I could tell that my body was throwing everything it had at the virus. At the start I knew it was because it had no real defence. I think it's also why I got so tired. My body is just diverting all its energy to the cause. Leaving little else for other things.

We get ill generally when our body has no answer the the foreign invader. We're actually invaded on a daily basis but our body keeps a collection of white blood cells that each remember how to fight a particular illness. when that illness comes a'invading then the relevant white blood cell copies itself and turfs the invader out. We get ill when we don't have this knight in shining armour so our gates are wide open with no defense so to speak. So the initial work our body does is on figuring out how to defeat the blasted thing. Once it's figured that out it sends the word and and ourt bodies begin making lots and lots of tiny white blood cells that know what to do.

So that's where the first couple of stages come in. The later stages are when our body is winning the struggle and turfing the little oinks out. the only problem is that they've probably got quite far into our system and caused a lot of trouble. The length and severity of this stage really depends on how much of a defence we had in the first place and how strong the invaders were. In this case the invader wasn't that strong and I think my defences were pretty good as well. I've had flu a number of times before so I think my body knew enough about what to do.

I also feel a lot of the symptoms seem to relate to which lymphnodes around your body are affected the most and thus where the fight is being taken to. That would atleast explain why everyone has different symptoms. while in most cases the virus would trek through our body in a common pattern. for some it would take a different route and the battles would be fought at different places. Atleast this idea makes sense, can't prove it though.

I think that's essentially why I didn't have a lot fo the problems I associate with flu such as a sore nose due to constant sneezing. The sneezing being caused by mountains of phlegm ultimatly caused by a lot of invaders being thrown out of my body. I think the virus didn't really get a very strong hold in the first place so there wasn't much of an aftermath to deal with.

As my body began to win the fight I feel my energy levels and body began to return to normal.
I also found the related symptoms began to subside. It felt that when the state of alert was lowered the problems also began to subside because my body was able to divert sufficient resource to fix these wider issues.

From that point I just found that things like mental stamina had to be built up again. I feel very strongly that brain cells and structures that we use all the time are continually adjusting their capacity related to their current load. When we're at work and generally busy they are strong and able to handle demand. When we go on holiday or get ill they don't get taxed any more and quickly lose their capacity. We can regain it just as quickly but we need to train this like we would any thing else.

any way. gotta end there. My wife is waiting outside in the car. Seems like a good place to finish anyway.





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