Flu 101 for Runners
Staying healthy throughout the winter can be a challenge at times, but it is critical if you are scheduled for an early-spring marathon or endurance event. Contracting the flu, bronchitis, a sinus infection or even just a bad head cold can derail your training for days and maybe even weeks.
This flu season has been one of worst the country has experienced. As of last week, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 48 states were still reporting widespread flu activity. Hospitalizations due to the flu were the highest ever reported and pediatric deaths from the flu number 53.
The average flu season over the last five years has averaged 16 weeks but the range spans from 11 to 20 weeks so the flu season may be far from over.
Why This Flu Season Has Been so Devastating…and Deadly
According to CDC officials, this flu season has been one of the worst in decades for a number of reasons. First, the flu hit the entire country all at once instead in various parts of the country at various times, as it has done in the past. The level of the flu outbreak remained extremely high nationally for three weeks, rather than the ebb and flow of previous seasons.
Second, flu season came early. Usually, flu season begins in earnest in January, but this flu season began in November, just as people were gathering for holiday celebrations. This timing may have led the flu to spread more quickly than it has in years past. Also, the cases of flu bumped up again in early January, coinciding with children returning to school from holiday break.
The most prevalent strain is H3N2, which accounts for almost 90% cases of the flu during this current season. H3N2 is notoriously severe, even deadly to the very young and very old, and difficult to prevent by the vaccine. H3N2 also causes more complications than other strains. Complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections.
What Does It Mean for Runners?
There is some good news. Being a runner or physically active may help prevent you from getting the flu.
A 2009 study found that participants who engaged in cardiovascular exercise had increased immunity during the entire flu season after being vaccinated as compared to those who engaged in a program focused solely on balance and flexibility. The study, which took place over 10 months at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was conducted by J.A. Woods and colleagues, noted that the cardiovascular exercisers registered higher average influenza antibody counts 20 weeks after having the flu vaccine than did those in the balance/flexibility group.
A subsequent study at the University of Iowa came to the same conclusion although their testing lasted a mere month. Researchers enlisted volunteer college students to exercise for 90 minutes—lightly jogging or biking—15 minutes after their influenza vaccine. Other volunteers remained sedentary for 90 minutes after their shot. A month later, their influenza antibodies were measured and those who had exercised following their inoculation had nearly double the number of antibodies as did those who didn’t.
Because of the increase in circulation as a result of exercise, it appears that the body’s immune system kicked into gear and the vaccine was transported more quickly away from the site of the vaccination and into other body parts.
What You Can Do to Ward Off the Flu
The number one thing to prevent the flu is to get the flu shot if you haven’t already. It is not too late and some are projecting that this flu season could last for at least a few more months. Even if you have received the flu shot and still get a strain not covered by the vaccine, chances are it will be less severe and shorter in duration.
Frequent hand washing and using hand sanitizer when soap and water isn’t available can reduce your risk of infection. Staying away from those who are sick is another good rule of thumb. For those who work in places where it is easy for illnesses to spread, like schools and daycares, for example, sanitizing surfaces may help discourage the spread of flu. Flu bacteria can live on hard surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, sinks, chairs, etc. for up to 48 hours so sanitizing on a regular basis may help.
You Have the Flu. Now What?
Signs and symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, sore throat, cough, body aches, headaches, fatigue, runny/stuffy nose and occasionally vomiting or diarrhea although these are more common in young children than adults. Symptoms usually come on suddenly and occur within one to four days from being exposed. You can be contagious one day before exhibiting symptoms and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.
When you have the flu, there is no need to panic and race to the emergency room or doctor. Most cases of the flu do not require medical care or antiviral medication. The CDC recommends that those who are sick stay home from work, school, shopping, social events and public gatherings. Extended travel is not recommended. If you must go out, wear a facemask if you have one, cover your coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues and wash your hands frequently to keep from spreading the illness to others. CDC discourages people from returning to work, school, etc. until you have been fever-free—without fever-reducing medication—for 24 hours.
If you are considered a high risk for complications from the flu—are aged 65 and over, are pregnant, or suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes—you need to be aware of symptoms that might indicate a complication from the flu and probably require a visit to your health care provider or the emergency room. Those symptoms include dizziness, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, severe or continuous vomiting, confusion or the improvement of symptoms but then a recurrence with a fever and cough.
Can I Exercise When I Have the Flu?
Chances are you won’t really feel like exercising but if you have an extremely mild case that is short in duration some might push through to maintain a certain number of training days or even to keep a running streak alive.
If you are running a fever, it is best not to exercise. Exercise itself stresses the body and the immune system. A fever indicates that your body’s immune system is busy fighting off an infection. Exercising while you have a fever unnecessarily stresses the immune system, which can delay recovery. In addition, having a fever makes you sweat, just as you do when you exercise. Over-exertion while your body is feverish can lead to dehydration, which can result in complications that could land you in the hospital.
If your fever has broken and you feel well enough to exercise, doing so at a lower intensity level and for a much shorter duration than you normally do are recommended. And, of course, if you have any of the symptoms of complications listed above, stop exercising immediately and seek medical help as soon as possible.