So much for the ‘First Defence’ squirted regularly and inelegantly up both nostrils as we travelled towards France, and so much for the frenzied scrubbing of every suspect surface between Cumbria and Les Trois Vallées with anti-bacterial wipes. So much for the constant hand washing, a travel-inspired obsessive compulsive aversion to making contact with anything (particularly air-side), and the copious splats of hand-sanitising gel.
For all of these, I now realise, may ‘kill 99.9% of bacteria’ but fail utterly to halt a determined flu virus in its tracks.
And, while we’re at it, so much for the flu jab. It’s kept me safe – or so I’d thought – for a number of years now. But that’s flying off to foreign lands for you – bugs do so like to travel too.
I can’t remember ever having had flu (or, as le dishy French docteur wrote on my medical certificate, ‘flew’). Proper, so-this-is-how-it-ends-then flu. So much so, his diagnosis came as a shock.
‘It ees posseeble you can ski,’ he purred, ‘but you would be exhausted.’ No s**t!
And so it was that the last four days of my holiday slid by well and truly off the piste – any pleasure in the amazing snow conditions outside the hotel window purely vicarious – and the entire week after that, lodged on the sofa, le dishy docteur‘s parting warning to beware that this might easily develop into pneumonia or chest infection, gnawing at my fevered brain.
Almost three interminable weeks on, as I cautiously clamber up the other side – thankfully pneumonia-free, though until this weekend still largely glued to the sofa – two things occur to me.
First, that the world, is divided into two camps. Those who take you at your word, when you say ‘I have flu’, and those who don’t, who assume you are merely laying it on a bit on the ‘snuffles’ front (also known as ‘man flu’). Indeed even make a point of later asking whether you’re over your ‘cold’. Maybe they were joking but then ‘sense of humour suspension’ – as anyone who’s actually had it would know – is a rarely-noted symptom of influenza.
I blame the ads. All that ‘sit in an oversized armchair and swig on a Lemsip then get back at it’ nonsense, that constant societal need to struggle on through, not lose face, let the side down, appear a wuss, take time off, irrespective of your inability to function – or, more crucially, your ability to infect anyone in the vicinity unfortunate enough to inhale one of your ‘droplets’ (as they’re tweely referred to). The constant conflation of ‘cold and flu’, despite the best efforts of the experts to persuade us that these are two very different things.
To be specific, according to the NHS, a cold ‘makes you feel unwell but you’re okay to carry on as normal – for example, go to work’ whereas flu ‘makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal’. And, like le docteur said, definitely no skiing.
Which brings me to my second ‘thing’. Had I picked up the flu at home, rather than France, how likely would it be that I might now be fighting a greater foe in the form of pneumonia or chest infection? Where here, faced with the rigmarole of getting anywhere near a doctor, in anything like timely fashion, I’d have hesitated before seeking medical advice. There, not so. But then losing out on a €286 ski pass does concentrate the mind somewhat. No medical certificate, no insurance claim.
Here, I’d likely have struggled on for a week, maybe two, only daring to call the surgery when it was already too late. There, just two sleepless nights in, with throbbing, whimpering head pain and aching limbs, and unable to dislodge the sandstone brick behind my sternum, I was straight down the medical centre. Turned out my temperature was hovering just below the red zone.
I don’t know whether the prescribed Tamiflu (only good if given within 48 hours from onset of symptoms) made any difference, but the revelation that this was more than just a head cold certainly made me think more carefully about how I should look after myself and, perhaps more importantly, how easy it would be to spread the contagion.
But even the NHS advises only seeing your doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved after three weeks, by which time m’lud, I would argue that any respiratory infection will be well entrenched and who knows how far those droplets might have spread.
So, on reflection, maybe I have had flu before. Proper flu. The two or three times in life when what started out as a ‘cold’ morphed into week after week of miserable chest infection, course after course of antibiotics (before we realised they weren’t in fact Smarties). Had I not struggled on through but been more aware, not avoiding bothering the GP with my ‘snuffles’, maybe they wouldn’t have taken such a hold. How many others do that I wonder and suffer – even die – as a result?
Because people do. Die, that is. According to the Office of National Statistics, there were an estimated 50,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in 2017/18, the highest recorded since winter 1975/76, almost three times as many dying of flu than the previous year.
On the plus side, the threat of my imminent demise has prompted us to finalise the Powers of Attorney we started some months back. ‘Ooh you don’t need to bother with those yet,’ said Mother Gremlin but, honestly, how do any of us know? Thankfully, to grossly misquote Mr Twain, fears for my death have been greatly exaggerated. I’m by no means done yet but it’s only when illness blindsides you, you realise how delicate the balance between sickness and health.
The thing is, once the achy legs, banging head and rib-wrenching, ‘just want to curl up and die’ stage has passed (maybe five days in), you’re left with day after day after day of listless, spluttering dis-ease, an overriding sense that you’ll never feel well again. A time when your mind, having kidnapped any vestige of humour you once possessed and turned it against you, will daily trick you into thinking you’re getting better only to watch, cackling, as you face-plant (metaphorically) back on the sofa.
‘Don’t be tempted to do too much too soon,’ said Sue, the nurse practitioner at my own surgery. And I took her at her word.
So, my top tips for coping with flu? In no particular order, beside the recommended vitamins and pharmaceuticals, a complete disregard for that ever-present voice reminding me that I ‘should be doing something’, and a husband on tap to fill hot water bottles, warm wheat bags and generally be solicitous: Sleep (lots of), industrial quantities of honey, lemon and fresh ginger toddies (definitely no whisky), a stack of reading material and knitting. And, surprisingly, yoga (gentle, restorative stuff and not in a class, obvs).
I’ve also become practised in the art of pranayama (a form of yogic breath control), my aim to keep the lungs moving sufficiently that no self-respecting bacterium would dare take up residence.
And next time I travel abroad, I might well be wearing a mask. Just hope they let me through security.