5 Important Things to Know About the 2018 Flu Season

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iStock

It's normal for people to fantasize about taking a Hawaiian vacation in the dead of winter, but the far-flung tropical state holds extra allure right now: Hawaii is the only area in the U.S. that hasn't yet reported widespread influenza activity, according to the Center for Disease Control's latest flu report.

Thirty-two states so far (plus New York City and Puerto Rico) are currently experiencing "high" flu activity, and nearly 9000 influenza-related hospitalizations (mainly involving seniors, middle aged patients, and children) have been reported since October 1, 2017. Whether you've been personally affected by the virus or managed to avoid it thus far, here's what you need to know about this year's flu season.

1. IT'S BAD BUT NOT UNPRECEDENTED.

Yes, this flu season is bad, but not apocalyptically so. In fact, the 2014–2015 season was "just as bad, if not worse," Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told MD Magazine. "Though the perception has been ‘Wow, this is unprecedented,' in no way is it unprecedented."

Most states have reported high influenza levels and an increase in pediatric influenza hospitalizations. But both the 2014–2015 and 2012–2013 seasons saw even greater child hospitalization rates in early January, according to Fauci. The current flu season has been hyped mostly because it came in earlier than expected, and with a vengeance—not because it's more severe than in the past.

2. MULTIPLE STRAINS OF FLU ARE CIRCULATING—AND ONE IS PARTICULARLY VIRULENT.

Multiple influenza strains are currently circulating throughout the U.S., with the most vicious one being the H3N2 flu. According to CDC experts, flu seasons dominated by H3N2 can lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths—and unfortunately, the current flu vaccine may be just 30 percent effective against this particular strain. On average, a flu shot is around 40 to 60 percent effective.

The seasonal flu shot allows individuals to develop infection-fighting antibodies against strains that experts predict will soon be be widespread. This year, experts thought that the H1 strain would reign supreme, and they designed the vaccine accordingly. People are indeed still catching it, and the shot grants them protection against this strain. While it offers less protection against H3N2, it can still lessen the severity of your illness if you do come down with it.

3. THE FLU SEASON HAS LIKELY PEAKED, BUT IT'S NOT OVER QUITE YET.

The CDC announced on Friday, January 12, that the influenza illness had likely reached its zenith for the 2017–2018 flu season. But just because it's peaked doesn't mean it's over; in fact, officials say we may have up to three months to go until we're officially out of the germy woods. Keep your guard up: Wash your hands, tote around hand sanitizer, and avoid sniffly colleagues.

4. IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO GET YOUR FLU SHOT.

Getting an annual flu shot in the fall provides you with maximum protection, but it isn't too late to get vaccinated if you forgot to schedule a seasonal appointment.

Even if you're not worried about getting sick yourself, it's still important to get the shot to protect others; when it comes to infectious disease, we're all in this together. Epidemiologists call that mutual collective protection herd immunity. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized with influenza each year, and thousands or tens of thousands die from it, according to the CDC. The flu can be particularly dangerous for seniors, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions. They run the risk of developing severe complications that can lead to hospitalization and even death. Eighty-five percent of the 30 children who have died from flu this year so far were not vaccinated.

Bottom line: Make a beeline to your doctor or pharmacy post-haste if you haven't gotten your shot. This also goes for those who've already come down with the flu—it's still possible that you could become infected by yet another strain.

5. FLU CAN LIVE FOR A LEAST A DAY IN A HANDKERCHIEF. 

In addition to hand hygiene, practice tissue hygiene—and steer clear of hankies at all cost—to avoid coming down with the flu. Viruses can survive in a handkerchief for about a day and spread, and the same presumably goes for a used tissue, which is why it's important to use it just once before tossing it into the trash.

BONUS: SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING ON A UNIVERSAL FLU VACCINE.

In 2017, the NIH resolved to work towards a universal flu vaccine, designed to safeguard against all (or almost all) flu strains. More than 150 researchers have collaborated to work on the initiative, with researchers searching for rare flu targets and playing close attention to animal flu strains that might jump to humans.

Several vaccine prototypes are now entering the first stages of human safety testing. One vaccine removes the "head" of a protein coating the virus, where mutations often occur. Another alters the protein so that it's alien to the immune system, triggering a response. Yet another combines four different proteins in hopes the immune system will mount defenses against multiple strains. Ideally, a universal vaccine would be given to people when they are young to hopefully create a lifetime of protection, the NIH's Fauci told CBS News: "The vision of the field is that ultimately if you get the really good universal flu vaccine, it's going to work best when you give it to a child."

How Microwaving Food Affects Its Nutritional Value

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iStock/grzymkiewicz

There’s probably no household appliance that sees more use than a microwave. For people who don’t have the time or inclination to prepare dinners from scratch or heat meals in a conventional oven, zapping food has become the ultimate method of time management in the kitchen.

Some people harbor the belief that a price has to be paid for that convenience—specifically, that food loses nutritional value by being subjected to a quick nuking.

The truth? Microwaving doesn’t harm a food’s nutrients. In fact, it may preserve them more than some slow-cook methods do.

The reason is found in how microwaves work. The appliances heat food by blasting it with waves of energy not unlike radio waves. These waves target water and other molecules in the food. Thermal energy quickly builds up, and dishes come out heated in a relatively short period of time. This process avoids two of the factors that can lead to nutrient loss: cooking duration and high temperatures. Typically, the longer and hotter food is cooked, the more its nutritional value dissipates.

The other advantage is that microwaves don’t require water for heating. If you boil broccoli, for example, the hot water allows nutrients to leach out of the vegetable. (While that makes for a good stock, your broccoli may be robbed of some of its healthy benefits.) A quick steam in the microwave leaves broccoli relatively intact.

That’s not to say that microwave cooking is superior to a stovetop. Cooking foods at reasonable temperatures and durations shouldn’t result in significant nutrient loss, though some is inevitable for any manner of cooking. But microwaving isn’t going to erase nutrients via some mysterious microwave alchemy, either.

[h/t CNN]

12 Facts About Fibromyalgia

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iStock.com/spukkato

To people living with fibromyalgia, the symptoms are all too real. Muscle tenderness, full-body pain, and brain fog make it hard to function—and getting a restful night’s sleep isn’t much easier. To the frustration of patients, other aspects of the chronic condition—such as what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it—are more of a mystery. But after decades of rampant misconceptions, we know more facts about fibromyalgia than ever before.

1. SYMPTOMS FEEL DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary widely. The defining characteristic of the condition is widespread pain, or pain felt throughout the entire body, but how often this pain occurs and how intensely it’s felt is different in each patient. Some people may feel pain reminiscent of a sunburn, a pins-and-needle sensation, sharp stabbing, or some combination of the above. Beyond pain, the condition can come with fatigue, disrupted sleep, depression and anxiety, and trouble focusing (known as “fibro fog").

2. IT AFFECTS MOSTLY WOMEN.

Most fibromyalgia patients are female, making it more prevalent in women than breast cancer. Not only are women more likely to have fibromyalgia than men, but they report experiencing the symptoms more acutely as well. Researchers still aren’t sure why the condition has a disproportionate impact on women, but they speculate that because the diagnosis is most common during a woman's fertile years, it may have something to do with estrogen levels. Some experts also suspect that the condition may be under-diagnosed in men because it’s often labeled a woman’s problem.

3. IT’S RARE.

Though it has gained visibility in recent years, your chances of experiencing fibromyalgia are still slim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects roughly 4 million adults in the U.S., or 2 percent of the population. Fibromyalgia’s similarity to other mysterious conditions also means it is likely overdiagnosed, so that number may be even lower.

4. MOST PEOPLE GET IT IN MIDDLE AGE.

People who have fibromyalgia tend to develop it well into adulthood. The condition is most common in 30- to 50-year-olds, but people of all ages—including children and seniors—can have it. Fibromyalgia in patients 10 and younger, also called juvenile fibromyalgia, often goes unrecognized.

5. IT’S HARD TO DIAGNOSE.

There’s no one medical test that you can take to confirm you have fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors diagnosis patients who exhibit the condition’s most common symptoms—widespread pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and muscle tenderness in certain points on the body—by process of elimination. Polymyalgia rheumatica and hypothyroidism (or an underactive thyroid gland) provoke similar symptoms, and both show up in blood tests. Doctors will usually tests for these conditions and others before diagnosing a person with fibromyalgia.

6. THE NAME IS RELATIVELY NEW.

People have suffered from fibromyalgia for centuries, but it received its official name only a few decades ago. In 1976, the word fibromyalgia was coined to describe the condition, with fibro coming from fibrous tissue, myo from the Greek word for muscle, and algia from the Greek word for pain. The name replaced fibrositis, which was used when doctors incorrectly believed that fibromyalgia was caused by inflammation (which -itis is used to denote).

7. IT MAY BE ASSOCIATED WITH PTSD.

Health experts have long known that post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest in physical symptoms—now they suspect the disorder is sometimes connected to fibromyalgia. According to a study published in the European Journal of Pain in 2017, 49 percent of 154 female fibromyalgia patients had experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, and 26 percent had been diagnosed with PTSD. Researchers also saw a correlation between trauma and the intensity of the condition, with subjects with PTSD experiencing more and worse fibromyalgia pain than those without it.

8. IT’S NOT “ALL IN YOUR HEAD.”

As is the case with many invisible illnesses, fibromyalgia patients are often told their symptoms are purely psychological. But findings from a 2013 study suggested what many sufferers already knew: Their pain is more than just a product of mental distress or an overactive imagination. The small study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, found extra sensory nerve fibers around certain blood vessel structures in the hands of 18 of 24 female fibromyalgia patients compared to 14 of 23 controls. The study proposed that the nerve endings—once thought to merely regulate blood flow—may also be able to perceive pain, an idea that could help dispel a harmful myth surrounding the condition.

9. IT’S CONNECTED TO ARTHRITIS, CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME, AND IBS.

For many patients, fibromyalgia isn’t the only chronic condition they suffer from. Fibromyalgia has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, and other medical problems. In some cases, as with chronic fatigue syndrome, the two conditions have such similar symptoms that their diagnostic criteria overlaps. Others conditions like irritable bowel syndrome are related to fibromyalgia—not confused with it.

10. IT'S PROBABLY NOT GENETIC—BUT IT CAN CLUSTER IN THE FAMILIES.

If you're closely related to someone with fibromyalgia, you're more likely to have it yourself. Studies have shown that the diagnosis tends to cluster in families. At first this seems to suggest that the condition is genetic, but scientists have yet to identify a specific gene that's directly responsible for fibromyalgia. The more likely explanation for the trend is that members of the same family experience the same environmental stressors that can trigger the symptoms, or they share genes that are indirectly related to the issue.

11. ANTIDEPRESSANTS CAN HELP ...

Since we don't know what causes fibromyalgia, it's hard to treat. But patients are often prescribed antidepressants to ease their symptoms. These medications have been shown to alleviate some of the most debilitating hallmarks of the condition, such as general pain and restless nights. Doctors who support antidepressants as a fibromyalgia treatment are quick to note that that doesn’t make the condition a mental disorder. While these drugs can lift the depressed moods that sometimes come with fibromyalgia, they also function as painkillers.

12. ... AND SO CAN EXERCISE.

One of the most common pieces of advice fibromyalgia patients get from doctors is to exercise. Hitting the gym may seem impossible for people in too much pain to get off the couch, but physical activity—even in small doses—can actually alleviate pain over time. It also works as treatment for other fibromyalgia symptoms like depression and fatigue.

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