By Dr. Jim Ferguson
I believe you appreciate wellness, when you haven’t had it in a while. I’m on the recovery side of a bad cold for which I can thank my wife Becky. Actually, it wasn’t her fault; she was an innocent bystander of the “kennel cough” our dog Jack brought home from who knows where. I’m joking, of course, because humans don’t get colds from dogs, and kennel cough is a smorgasbord of dog afflictions. However, it was recently reported that dogs and cats can be a source of influenza virus, at least in China. But, I’m skeptical of any Chinese research study.

By this time I hope everyone has had their annual influenza vaccination. The flu shot utilizes virus proteins, not live virus, to stimulate your immune system to make protective antibodies against influenza infection. Since the vaccine is not made from live virus it cannot cause infection or illness, unless you’re allergic to eggs or certain preservative antibiotics used in vaccine manufacture.

Unfortunately, the influenza virus regularly mutates and last year’s vaccine contained the wrong proteins as the flu season approached. Influenza vaccine production is not perfect science. You may be surprised to learn that the proper vaccine cocktail is determined by analyzing influenza virus circulating in Asian aquatic fowl! Furthermore, the immune system ages like the rest of our body and becomes less responsive to vaccination. As a result, the vaccine is only 60% effective at preventing influenza, but it is better than not taking precautions against such a miserable illness. Unfortunately, only a third of Americans get an annual flu shot, and since experts opine it is necessary to get 70% of the population vaccinated to prevent epidemics, the virus runs wild every year.

If you learn nothing else from this essay, the take home point is that influenza is NOT a cold. I once had a patient who told me he knew he had the flu because he was so miserable he was afraid he would not die.

So, how do you differentiate a cold from influenza? Partly, it’s a matter of degree. Influenza causes the sudden onset of chills, malaise, and fever that is usually greater than 101°. This is accompanied by watery eyes, headache and aching so severe that some describe their myalgia like being beaten with a stick. People with influenza are so sick they even have trouble getting out of bed. Doctor lingo for this is prostrate (not prostate!).

On the other hand, the common cold is caused by a multitude of other viruses and produces nasal congestion, low-grade fever (if any), sore throat and coughing from drainage. Doctors sometimes utilize a nasal swab test to look for the proteins of influenza virus, but these tests are insensitive, though specific and reliable if positive. I believe these tests are most valid to establish an influenza epidemic in the community. Then if a patient presents with typical symptoms of influenza, I proceed with treatment without confirmation. There are antiviral medications for influenza, but these must be started early in the course of the illness to be of benefit. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for the common cold. (If had a cure for this scourge I would be rich and famous.) Lastly, antibiotics treat bacteria and are useless against viral infections. Furthermore, indiscriminate use of antibiotics promotes the emergence of resistant bacteria, exposes patients to needless expense and potential side effects of antibiotics like rash and diarrhea. It is easy to write a prescription for an antibiotic, but sometimes it is best and loving to tell folks that an antibiotic is not in their best interest.

Since this is the season of love come down to earth, I’ve been meditating on love versus charity. In English we use modifying descriptors of love. Examples are love of grandkids or love of chocolate. These are obviously not the same notions of love. Greek was the language used by the writers of the New Testament and has words for different types of love. Examples are agape for sacrificial love, eros for erotic love and phila for brotherly love. Other Greek “love” terms are ludos, pragma, storge and philiantia. Google them if you’re curious.

Last week’s Christmas message defined God as love and that love is God. The Master said that you are to “love God with all your heart, soul and mind…and your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes that’s tough because some “neighbors” are at times a bit “unlovable.”

In recent weeks I’ve written about the theological virtues described in I Corinthians 13:13. In some versions, faith, hope and love are translated as faith, hope and charity. I asked Mr. Webster about the word charity and, among the many definitions, he described charity as kindness and tolerance of others. I like that. Even if I have trouble “loving” some people, as when I don’t feel loving, I can still treat others with charity and kindness, and obey the Master’s edict.

But it gets even deeper when you consider trying to love God. For me the words fall far short of the mark and the Ideal. However, the words I use and the actions I take will have to do. My best is what I can give in honor of God, by loving, showing kindness and by serving others.

The beautiful vision of Philip Yancey offers me comfort when my best doesn’t seem enough. The safety net of God’s Grace is our blessed reassurance. And it is more than enough.

Merry Christmas to all of you. And, keep looking up!