Good morning all,
As we slip slowly into Spring, it's easy to forget that we still are within flu (influenza) season. We should also remember that the latter half of flu season this year is characterized by a more-virulent flu strain than was common during the first half of this year's flu season, which explains why reports of flu-like illness have risen in recent weeks.
Seasonal flu is caused by influenza virus, whose make-up changes from one season to the next as well as over the course of an individual flu season - this is one of the reasons that 'flu shots' (vaccinations against the influenza virus) are recommended every year. Normally, last year's flu vaccine won't protect us this year, and sometimes the vaccine works very poorly altogether.
For most of us, flu is a passing annoyance, but influenza can be deadly - 10,000 people have died from the flu in this country during flu season this year. Last year's flu was particularly deadly, causing 80,000 deaths in the U.S. Most are caused by respiratory failure.
Influenza virus infects our respiratory mucosa (the linings of our respiratory tracts), triggering inflammation and cell death. Much research is aimed at determining how our immune systems detect the virus and attempt to prevent its effects, and new research out this week suggests a surprising tool: taste receptor-like cells, known as tuft cells. They had long been known to exist, but their function was never clear.
This new research shows that tuft cells in our respiratory tract and lungs proliferate and trigger immune responses when virus is detected. Interestingly, they can be promoted across much of the body - including our respiratory tract, out intestines, even our bladder. After infection from flu virus, they appear to remain activated and cause sustained inflammation, which can trigger long-tern allergies and tissue remodeling. Inflammation is a very useful part of our immune function, but it can also provide unnecessary side-effects (allergies, anyone?) and tissue damage if pronounced.
Fortunately, the best defense against the flu is easy: cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands! Otherwise, prepare for your tuft cells to 'Spring' into action (pun intended).
Have a great weekend -