How the year began: A dose of flu

2011 began with a dose of probably-swine-flu. “Probably” because the only way you can be sure about that is to send of a sample of the virus for testing.

The experience was different from what I expected. Just before New Year, I caught what seemed like a fairly normal, but feverish, cold. It came on gradually, over several days. When I’ve had proper flu in the past, it’s come on very quickly: e.g. going from being well to being ill in the space of less than an hour. So I was confident that this wasn’t going to be flu, just a cold. My temperature went up to about 100–101 °F for about three days, which is typical for me when I catch something like that. It stays up for about that long, then gradually goes down again over a few more days, and the cold is over (with the possible exception of a lingering cough afterwards).

This time though, once the three days were over, my temperature continued going up. Friends on Twitter became increasingly alarmed as I reported the daily temperatures.  In particular, it tended to shoot up in the evening, during the gap between one dose of paracetamol wearing off and the next being due. It reached 103.4 °F one day; 103.6° the next; 103.8° the next. And of course it did this over the weekend of New Year, in which the Friday and Monday were both public holidays and the doctor’s surgery was closed. I did my best to drink plenty of fluids, slept a lot, and (surprisingly) managed not to feel too horrible by being very careful about how much I ate and when. My technique was to avoid having a full stomach at times when my temperature was likely to go up.

Unsolicited advice abounded of course, mostly boiling down to

  • Drink lots of fluids, which you already know and are already doing as a matter of course, but we still think we should tell you to do it.
  • Go to the doctor, which is physically impossible while confined to bed and which the surgery have specifically asked people with flu NOT to do, so you can make yourself more ill by travelling there, and so you can irresponsibly infect everyone else while waiting to be told to drink lots of fluids which you already know and are doing.
  • Keep your temperature down to stop us worrying, even though it’s a perfectly normal flu symptom and is probably helping to fight the virus.
  • Here are the symptoms of meningitis which you’re already familiar with. Are you sure it’s not meningitis? You should really get the doctor to check that it’s not meningitis, even though you’ve checked the symptoms umpteen times already and definitely don’t have any of them. Even though you’ve not got any symptoms of meningitis, we’re still scared that it’s meningitis.

Admittedly the temperatures were the highest I’ve ever had except for the occasion when I did have meningitis at the age of 17. But I was surprised not to feel considerably more ill at nearly 104 °F than I did. (With the meningitis, I remember feeling horribly ill and disoriented, sitting on the side of my bed with very little sense of where I was or what time of day it was; feeling nauseous and having a severe but bearable headache; not wanting much light because it hurt my eyes; not being able to put my chin on my chest because my neck hurt if I tried; and my father taking my temperature then saying  either “It’s 105!!!” or “It’s 104.5!!!” in a tone of voice that implied that my temperature had no right to be that high. I remember the symptoms coming on extremely fast. And I remember my mind being too fuzzy to absorb whether my father said 105 or 104.5.)

When I was finally able to ring the doctor on the Tuesday, he cheerfully told me that I didn’t need to worry about the high fever “unless you start coughing up blood or anything like that”, and (surprise surprise) that I should drink lots of fluids. Also he confirmed that it was OK to take ibuprofen as well as paracetamol. So I took ibuprofen doses half way between the paracetamol ones, thereby achieving what I now thought of as “low” temperatures around 101–102 °F and avoiding the idiotically high ones I’d been experiencing. (I was also, incidentally, amazed at the dramatic quantities of sweat my body was capable of producing in the process of cooling itself down by two degrees. Ugh.)

A couple of days later, my temperature started heading back down to more sensible values. The most alarming thing was that it showed no sign at all that it was going to do this: the fever simply stayed up on its plateau for days on end, with virtually no change. And I had a nasty feeling that the infection was trying to work its way lower into my chest. I didn’t fancy the idea of getting pneumonia, or the laryngitis that it was hinting at either. So it was a relief when the flu showed signs of finally improving.

When I finally made it back to orchestra, I was a bit startled when several people said they’d never had flu in their lives. Maybe that’s why I got the odd reactions on Twitter, though. I’ve had real flu three or four times, including Hong Kong flu as a child in 1968, and a flu in 1986 which knocked me out for months, so I tend to assume that people have experienced flu and know how to deal with it (namely by expecting a high fever, drinking enough, resting until it’s taken its course, and calling the doctor if anything happens which doesn’t seem normal for flu or which could be a complication).

The flu left me exhausted for weeks afterwards, of course. But it also had a positive side effect: I’d been trying to get down what I think is my ideal weight (the one at which I feel healthiest), and an enforced week of eating next to nothing brought me within a few pounds of that now-achieved goal.

The next event of 2011 is a much more serious one, involving a bereavement in the family, so I’ll write about that in a separate post. I don’t want any hints of flippancy from this post to spill over into that one. The two are connected though, and part of the reason for my extended silence here is that we were hit by that before I’d had a chance to recover my strength from the flu.

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