Getting Influenza the First Week of the Semester

H1N1 influenza
Influenza is a nasty disease, for something unlikely to kill or (permanently) cripple you. It comes in numerous flavors, from H1N1 and H3N2 to Influenza B, and it mutates with great enthusiasm, preventing broad immunity through either infection or current vaccines. You’re usually contagious a day or two before you feel sick, which makes it easy to spread. Even when symptoms appear, you usually don’t feel that sick for several hours, when you’re already trapped at work or school.

You might mistake it for a cold at the beginning, but it saps your energy in a very distinctive way. Your limbs become heavy and stiff, and your entire body feels cold and exposed, no matter how many blankets you pile on yourself. Water tastes like dirt, even though you should probably drink a lot of it, and it becomes possible to sleep for longer periods than you could ever manage normally. You should stay home in this phase, but some employers, parents, or superegos will pressure you to work anyway, despite the infection risk. If you have weaker defenses or very bad luck, it can cause pneumonia, encephalitis, or organ failure. More often, it disables you for several days and leaves a nasty cough afterward.

At least, it knocked me down every time I could remember. Thus, when my mother caught the flu during my first week back at college, I became very nervous very quickly. She woke up Monday with a sore throat, went to work thinking she had a cold, and returned that evening with a fever of 101°F. It rose three degrees higher before she finally got it down by taking a bath. I slept at my friend’s house that night, so I didn’t know she was sick yet. My throat hurt the next morning. It felt like a cold, growing slightly worse each hour. I realized it was influenza the moment I learned about her. In retrospect, I never had a chance. The vaccine didn’t protect her from that particular strain, so it didn’t protect me, and she’d probably been contagious all weekend.

It wasn’t her fault, but it threw a wrench into my entire schedule. I started courses in HTML, Python, computer hardware, and fiction writing that week, and I moved my site to WordPress. Before infection, I planned to work ahead in each class, utilizing the calm introductory phase. The flu shattered my plans. At a minimum, I couldn’t go to class for the rest of the week. I was too dangerous to others. My mother works roughly ten hours at the hospital each day, and she spends her free time cleaning the house. Her energy reserves defy comprehension. So when she called in sick and couldn’t leave her bed the next day, I knew my week was doomed.

Before this year, I last contracted influenza in grade ten. My school offered free vaccinations, but I forget to bring my parents the necessary paperwork. I caught H1N1 that February, and I spent an entire week at home, too sick for school or athletics. It began with minor aches, but it completely drained my energy only hours afterward. I was so tired I could barely move. After two years of insomnia, it was almost therapeutic. I slept for ten or twelve hours each night, and I spent my days playing System Shock 2 in the living room with a surgical mask over my face.

I bought System Shock 2 in October, but my character barely made it to the Engineering Deck before crawling into the highest and emptiest cargo shelf he could find. My guns broke too quickly, my hacking efforts failed, and more importantly, I was too scared to keep playing. It sat unused on my Steam menu until I got the flu that week. I started over with an OSA agent, specialized in melee combat, and beat the entire game over the next nine days. Perhaps I was too tired to be frightened easily, or perhaps it was the closest escape hatch.

It wasn’t a boring week, but it wasn’t a good one either. My head hurt, I ran a fever for several days, and I accomplished nothing of academic value. I infected another family member with H1N1, and he spent almost thirty-six straight hours in bed. He developed a bacterial abscess in his gums the same day; I’m sure it took advantage of the strain on his immune system. He managed to kill it with an old minocycline script he kept lying around the house. He’s lucky it worked, and I’m lucky high school moves slow enough to make up a week so easily.

College isn’t nearly as forgiving. You need to work fast, even if you receive extra time for illness. But as the week continued, it still felt like a cold instead of the flu. My nose ran, my throat hurt, and I start coughing every four seconds, but the deeper aches never materialized. I started to think it was just a cold. Maybe I’d been away from my mother’s house for long enough to escape, I decided. My grade 10 infection certainly hit much harder. So I continued going to class, signing attendance sheets, shaking hands, and otherwise failing to quarantine myself. I hope I didn’t infect anyone, but I strongly suspect I did.

I realized it was still influenza when water and Powerade starting tasting like mud. The loss of flavor is almost as distinctive as the body aches. The symptoms tricked me because they were so mild. When I looked back, the characteristic influenza aches were indeed present. But they were muted, almost pleasant. My saliva tested positive for Influenza A the next morning. I’m not sure if it was H1N1 or H2N3.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t get sicker. Perhaps the vaccine allowed my system to recognize the virus faster. Flu shots aren’t perfect, but they’re better than nothing. Everyone in my family fell ill that week, depsite vaccination, but three of us recovered unusually fast. Me and my mother were largely better next Monday, and when I infected my father, his symptoms were milder than a normal cold.

My sister wasn’t as fortunate. She woke next Friday with nausea and chest pain, coughing up thick, foul-smelling mucus into the kitchen sink. The virus had invaded her lungs, and her system reacted with violent inflammation. It frightened my parents enough to take her to the hospital. She improved after a steroid dose, and she returned home with an albuterol inhaler she’s still on a week later. They also gave her Tamiflu, but she nearly vomited during the car ride home. She hasn’t taken it since.

Sometimes diseases don’t behave the way you expect. Looking back, I wish I’d stayed home that week, no matter how bored I was. There’s a good chance I infected someone at college, there’s a good chance they infected more people, and so on. A vicious cycle.

Then again, there are two strains of Influenza A and one strain of B floating around right now. Exposure is almost guaranteed, and even if you’ve had one form, you aren’t neccesarily immune to the others. Not even with the flu shot, although it’s probably worth getting. Sometimes God just hates you.

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