Colds and flu

Updated 27 September 2017

7 obscure facts about flu

Most people are familiar with the basic facts about flu, but here are seven facts about influenza you probably didn’t know.

Flu or influenza has been around for a very long time and few of us manage to escape its clutches.

Most people know the basic facts about flu, like who is affected, how long it lasts, and its physical symptoms – so we did a bit of digging and came up with a number of lesser known facts about influenza. 

Abbreviated to 'flu'

In Italian the word influenza means “influence”. This refers to the influence people believed the sun, moon, planets and stars had on human affairs, including health and disease. The English started using the word in the 1700s, and it has since become abbreviated to “flu”.

The Afrikaans word “griep” and the German “Grippe” come from the French “la grippe”, which suggests something that “grips or grasps” you. Mary Dobson in her book  Murderous Contagion: A Human History of Disease mentions a phrase in Arabic,” anf-al-anza”, that sounds very similar to influenza. It means “nose of the goat” and apparently refers to the belief that goats are carriers of the flu.  

'The Father of Modern Medicine'

There have been numerous references to influenza throughout history, but the first person who clearly and accurately described the symptoms of flu was the Greek physician Hippocrates who lived in Greece more than 2 000 years ago. Hippocrates is known as the “Father of Modern Medicine”.

Spanish flu

Outbreaks of flu are nothing new, but the first documented pandemic was in 1580, which spread from Asia to Africa and Europe and finally to America.  

The best known flu pandemic was the so-called Spanish flu of 1918. It actually started in the USA but soon spread to other parts of the world. The first infections in Europe were reported in Madrid in May 1981, which is why it was called the Spanish flu. The flu manifested in three waves and ended up affecting the whole world, killing around 50 million people, more than the number of people killed in the First World War.

Strange remedies

The Spanish flu happened before the discovery of penicillin (1928), and some desperate and often highly questionable measures were taken to cure or prevent this killer disease. Some examples are:

  • Numerous shots of whiskey
  • Entirely abstaining from alcohol      
  • Eating and bathing in onions
  • Avoiding tight clothing
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Bloodletting
  • Opening the chest to remove pus and blood from the lung area 

Resilient viruses

    Another flu pandemic in the near future is not unlikely, especially in the light of ever-increasing international air travel. About 1.5 billion people travel by aeroplane every year, and a virus from Hong Kong can be transported to Europe in 12 hours and to the USA in 18 hours.

    Flu viruses are also more resilient than many others and can live on hard, non-porous surfaces for up to 48 hours and around 12 hours on tissues and cloth. They can also stay active for approximately a week at human body temperature and for an indefinite period of time at below freezing temperatures.  

    Vaccines may cause allergies

    Many people are allergic to eggs, and symptoms can range from mild to anaphylaxis, in which case access to an epinephrine auto-injector is essential.  To prevent an allergic reaction all products containing egg should be strictly avoided.

    Most influenza vaccines are incubated in eggs and contain small amounts of egg protein. Whether the patient will have an allergic reaction to the proteins in the flu shot will depend on the severity of their allergy. It is therefore advisable to check with your doctor before receiving a flu vaccination.

    More deadly than Ebola   

    Influenza kills more people than dreaded diseases like Ebola. According to the WHO, worldwide the flu causes around 250 000 to 500 000 deaths annually.   

    Health professionals recommend annual flu shots as a preventative measure. Flu vaccines protect against influenza A and B viruses but offer no protection against viruses that undergo genetic changes, like the “swine flu” (H1N1) that killed tens of thousands of people in 2009 and 2010.

    Read more:

    Bird flu, pig flu, now bat flu

    Summer flu?

    Flu vaccine isn't foolproof


    Good Housekeeping: 11 Interesting Facts About the Flu.

    Random Facts: 55 Interesting Facts About . . .The Flu.

    Who Discovered It?: Who Discovered Influenza?

    FARE: Egg Allergy.

    Live Science:5 Viruses That Are Scarier Than Ebola.


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    Flu expert

    Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
    She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

    Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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