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The History of the Flu

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Ever wondered where the flu came from? Why the flu is called the flu? Look no further. This article reveals the history of the flu and why the illness is so hard to fight.

Cold and flu season strikes in full force between October and March of every year. The flu is responsible for the death of around 30,000 people in the United States each year. 200,000 people are hospitalized each year due to complications from the flu. Often, the flu is simply the trigger for the true cause of death, which is generally caused by complications, rather than the initial flu infection itself.

Although the flu is one of the most common illnesses in the world today, many people still do not know much about it. Take a look at the history of the flu to learn more about this common and potentially deadly disease.

Flu Origins

The first recorded mention of the flu was around 2400 years ago by Hippocrates. The name of the flu, “influenza,” comes from the Italian word for “influence.” It was thought that the flu was the result of unfavorable astrological conditions or bad luck.

Throughout recent history, there have been four major flu pandemics.


In 1918, the “Spanish flu” swept the world. The flu was fast-acting and could kill someone within a matter of hours. According to Flu.gov, in 1918, 20 to 40 percent of the world became infected with Spanish flu. About 50 million people died from this flu. About 675,000 people died from the flu in the United States. The highest mortality rate occurred in individuals between 20 and 50 years old. According to the CDC, this iconic Spanish flu was in fact, the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. Just like in 1918, individuals between the ages of 20 and 50 are more likely to die from the swine flu today.


Between 1957 and 1958, another flu pandemic swept the world. This flu originated in the eastern part of the world and quickly spread across the globe. Researchers believe that this flu was spread by school children. It was not as deadly as the Spanish flu, but it killed about 69,000 people in the United States. This flu pandemic was particularly strong because it came in two waves- one in 1957 and one in 1958. With this flu, the elderly were the most likely to die.


Just like the flu from 10 years before, the version that started a pandemic in the world originated in Hong Kong. About 33,800 people died from the flu, making it the mildest flu pandemic in the 20th century. Researchers believe that improved medical care was responsible for the reduction in deaths from this flu combined with a reduced spread of infection rate due to children being out of school when the flu hit.


In 2009, the dreaded “swine flu” hit the world once more. This flu spread rapidly, and within 4 months, 74 countries were affected by the flu virus. The CDC estimates that about 18,000 people died due to complications from the swine flu in 2009 and 2010.

Types of Flu Viruses

Contrary to popular belief, there is not one simple strain of flu. In fact, all strains of influenza are part of a family of RNA viruses, classified with Hs (hemagglutinin) and Ns (neuraminidase) based on the type of protein in the virus. There are 17 types of H subtypes and 10 types of N subtypes.

In general, however, common flu strains are categorized by letters A, B, or C. The flu is part of the orthomyxoviridae family, which includes RNA viruses that can infect both birds and mammals.

In most cases, the flu is spread through the air but the virus can live on surfaces for about 48 hours. Strangely enough, 33 percent of people who catch the flu virus do not show any symptoms and are simply carriers for the virus. This is one reason why the flu can reach pandemic status so quickly.

Other Orthomyxoviridae Viruses 
  • Polio
  • Hepatitis C
  • West Nile virus
  • Measles

The most common strains of influenza are types A and B. Type A mutates easily and rapidly. This makes it difficult to contain and nearly impossible to vaccinate against. Birds and animals, as well as humans, can contract influenza A. All of the modern flu pandemics have been type-A, including the Spanish flu. Common flu medications rimantadine and amantadine are effective against type A only.

Influenza B is similar to type A, but it cannot infect birds. Influenza B mutates slowly, which makes it easier to vaccinate against. Common medications zanamivir and oseltamivir are effective against both flu types A and B.

The third type of flu, type C, is quite rare. It cannot cause epidemics because the symptoms are so mild.

What Are The Symptoms of Influenza? 

Since symptoms of the flu are similar to other respiratory illnesses, it can be hard to identify. When someone is sick for more than a day or two, they often mistakenly self-diagnose with the flu. Stomach viruses are seldom a result of the flu. However, in children, the flu can cause an upset stomach which could cause vomiting.

Symptoms of the Flu
  • High fever (above 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Cough
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose

In most cases, you cannot feel the flu coming on like you can with a cold. The flu virus strikes without warning. Although flu symptoms are similar to a cold, they can last much longer- sometimes longer than 2 weeks. The virus can also lead to other complications like bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections, and ear infections. It is usually these complications that result in death.

Stop the Spread of the Flu

Clearly, we have better intervention methods today than in 1918, considering that in 1918 the H1N1 flu killed about 5 percent of the world’s population, and in 2009, it only killed about 18,000 people. However, the flu virus can still be dangerous and it is important to stop the spread of the virus as much as possible.

In general, there are four things you can do to stop the spread of flu viruses in addition to getting vaccinated (which comes with its own risks).

Prevent Virus Spread

There are a variety of ways you can prevent the spread of the flu virus. If you or a family member is feeling under the weather, stay home until you feel better. Wipe down surfaces with an alcohol solution containing 64 percent alcohol to kill any lingering flu viruses. Wash your hands after touching your face, suspect surfaces, and anyone with the illness. Bathe frequently to wash viruses off of your skin.

Eat A Healthy Diet

If you arm your body with immune system-building nutrients, you will be able to fight off infections and prevent the onset of the flu. You may not always be able to fight every infection, but the better your diet, the more likely you are to prevent flu infections. Fill your diet with the following nutrients:

Flu-Fighting Nutrients

Vitamin A: Carrots, asparagus, green peppers, leafy greens, grapefruit, pumpkin, peaches

Vitamin C: Citrus fruit, berries, green peppers, kiwi, papaya, snow peas, tomatoes

Vitamin E: Carrots, broccoli, onions, eggplant, beans, plums, berries

Vitamin D: Fatty fish, pasture-raised dairy, pasture-raised eggs Zinc: Red meat, oysters, nuts, tuna, poultry, grain

Selenium: Nuts, red meat, poultry, grains

Avoid sugar and processed foods, as these foods can slow the immune system and make it harder to fight off invading viruses.

Control Stress Levels

Stress can contribute to a lowered immune system. In fact, when your body is stressed, it produces cortisol, which is an immune-suppressing hormone. Basically, stress triggers the “fight or flight” response in a person, which slows all non-essential bodily functions until the source of the stress is gone.

Of course, modern stress does not disappear as quickly as a lion chasing you, which means that your immune system could be suppressed for weeks or months at a time. A suppressed immune system will lead to more infections. Try to eliminate your stress and practice stress-relieving activities (conscious relaxing, meditating, exercise, 8 hours of sleep a night) to help your body recover from stress.

Supplement for Seasonal Health

A few supplements can also help you stay extra vigilant throughout the flu season. These supplements have been proven to increase a person’s immune system without the help of any other nutrients or practices. The best supplements you can take to boost your immune system include:

Elderberry: In studies, elderberry is proven to boost the immune system and reduce the duration of cold and flu viruses.

Echinacea: There is some debate over how effective Echinacea can be against the flu, but some studies have found that this herbal extract can stimulate the immune system and fight off the flu virus.

Goldenseal: Goldenseal both boosts the immune system and helps control inflammation in the nasal passages, which helps prevent further infections developing as a result of the flu. Beta Glucan 1,3 and 1,6: A study from 1992 found that these polysaccharides were able to enhance the immune system to specifically target viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

Bromelain: In vitro studies of bromelain have shown that this extract of pineapple can provide support for the immune system and reduce the risk of developing the flu.

Influenza: Looking Back

The flu has been around for thousands of years, but the same measures that prevented the spread of the flu then can prevent the spread today. Although today’s reigning flu strain, the H1N1 virus is the dreaded and deadly Spanish flu, eating a healthy diet, keeping clean, supplementing with immune system support, and keeping active will all help stop the spread of the dangerous virus. You do not have to let the flu influence you this year or any other year.





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