Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Why don't we do it in our sleeves?"

I feel an enormous amount of compassion for the sick people in my exam room. But my fountain of understanding abruptly runs dry when some infectious chucklehead lets loose an unrestrained cough or sneeze as we sit together in that tiny space.

So please, one and all, as we pass through this scary, fluish time in close quarters, check out this video . Give your family, your co-workers, and your doctor a break!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cytokine storm and the H1N1 swine flu virus

At a time when the flu season should be winding down in North America and Mexico, scary reports are emerging from our Southern neighbor of a new swine flu variant whose victims are primarily young. Not only does this influenza A strain appear to be a previously unknown combination of bird, swine, and human genetic material, but the course of fatal illness caused by this bad actor seems to be marked by a 'cytokine storm' that leads to grave lung damage in those affected.

Well shoot, who wants to be in the eye of a cytokine storm? Cytokines are worthy molecules that various body immune cells make in response to an infectious invasion. This is generally a good thing insofar as these various chemicals amplify the body's attack on unwanted intruders. As is true of so many physiological functions, however, a little is good but a lot is destructive.

At the heart of the stormy matter are macrophages ('first responder' white cells activated by damaged cells or foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses) and CD8+T-lymphocytes (circulating white cells that leap into killer mode the moment they get a whiff of flu viral proteins nearby). These white knights in cell membrane clothing produce a whole host of cytokines--including Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF)-alpha, Interferon (IFN)-gamma, IFN-alpha/beta, Interleukin (IL)-6, IL-1, MIP-1 (Macrophage Inflammatory Protein), MIG (Monokine Induced by IFN-gamma), IP-10 (Interferon-gamma-Inducible Protein), and MCP-1 (Monocyte Chemoattractant Protein) to name a few. H5N1 influenza (bird flu) happens to be a particularly strong inducer of this cytokine over-production due to the virulence and enthusiasm with which it enters human tissues. Whether or not swine flu and this newest swine version causes this kind of cytokine mess is still not known.

So the human lung and too many cytokines is way too much of a good thing, causing swelling, hemorrhage, and tissue death which are, ironically, more a result of the body's defense mode than a primary flu-generated injury. Scientists theorize that young people may have a more robust cytokine response and less H1N1 immunity from previous exposure compared with older populations.

As of today, 8 cases have been reported in the US from California and Mexico that have been identified as the swinish H1N1 flu but mild and self-limited illnesses in those affected. Remember, increasing evidence suggests that robust body levels of vitamin D are flu-protective, so this might be a good time to get your blood tested for vitamin D and step up your supplements under advisement with your physician.

For up-dated information on the H1N1 flu, see Triple Reassortment Swine Influenza, H1N1 flu shots, Why should I get a flu shot?, and What's a Phase 6 Pandemic?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

These glasses have got to go!

I've just returned from a round trip drive to the East coast. Don't ask why, just know that the last time I did that journey, I was 19, and it's quite a different matter to sit in a car that long that far nearly 4 decades later.

We were equipped with snacks, books on tape, and my favorite pair of sunglasses. When I tried them on at the sporting goods store, I was impressed with their style and comfort. I wore them for six months before I noticed that they had skulls embossed on the ear pieces--perhaps some sort of extreme sports insignia? Actually my son brought the look to my attention.

Well I can live with the skull thing, but I discovered during hours of driving into the late afternoon Kansas sun, these shades simply don't fit. The beskulled left ear piece digs painfully into my very own skull just above and behind my ear. So what misery to pick--squinting into the sun (wrinkles! cataracts! an inability to see the road!) or incessant fiddling with the way glasses meet head?

On top of that, my left shoulder began hurting terribly. I'm picturing my aging, degenerating neck sinking into my torso, pinching a nerve on its way to the bucket seat, and I add massaging the shoulder to sunglass fussing to my general in-car fidgets. After ripping the stupid things off when the sun went behind a cloud, I discovered that my shoulder pain resolved within minutes.

I've always told my patients that muscle tension in the neck can easily cause a headache. Apparently pounding plastic into the temporalis muscle on the side of the head can reverse the pain flow down the neck to the shoulder.