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Dr. Kassas: On Zeus, viruses, and headaches

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“Can we catch more than one virus at a time?”

By Dr. Zahi Kassas, Pediatrician

The legend cites that Zeus,  the “king of Gods” in the Greek mythology suffered from a chronic headache. The headache was getting worse and worse that “the thunder God” lost sleep. Nothing was helping. Magic potions, pain meds, essential oils, Zithromax and Ozempic failed to touch the pain. Doctors and psychics converged to Mount Olympus from all over the world, but all failed. Zeus was going nuts and was throwing thunders right and left until the younger Gods had enough of it and decided to call the surgeons. An Axe was brought in, and Zeus’ head was struck hard and his brain was split open until the headache was successfully extracted. As the headache jumped out of Zeus’ head, it swayed and pirouetted away joyfully and thence, Athena, the goddess of Wisdom was born!

It was said that once Zeus lost his wisdom, he lived happily ever after.

I was forwarded several questions by The Sun about viruses and our immune system. I thought to share some of the “wisdom” with you

Can we catch more than one virus at a time?

A big yes!

Viruses have poor social skills, and they don’t wait in turn. Toddlers and elementary grade children often seem continuously sick for months because viral infections tend to overlap. This season is a good example to this phenomenon. We are currently hosting abundant populations of  influenza A, Influenza B, RSV, rhinovirus, COVID and metapneumovirus. Among our young toddlers who cannot control their bodily secretions at schools and daycares, it is almost impossible to stop the spread. Student A suffering from the  flu, may catch rhinovirus from his seatmate who just picked his nose (student B), while student C shared COVID with both when he actually just coughed at them without covering his face.

This is why, it is not uncommon to get a positive test with more than one virus from a single swab test. And it often seems that toddlers are sick back-to-back with no break at all.

When it comes to symptoms, Viruses also are not courteous. They don’t wait for each other’s! When they co-infect, they each cause their own set of symptoms depending on what body system they infect.

When the virus infects out throat cells, it consumes them to reproduce. This causes the cells to die. That creates small ulcers in our throat and this is how we end up  feeling that annoying scratchy throat.

When viruses infect our noses and airways, the dead cells and the products of our inflammatory response produce mucus.

Mucus irritates our airway, which triggers the cough.

When we cough, we swallow the mucous as we clear our airway. Mucous in the stomach triggers nausea and vomiting.

When viruses infect our gut cells, the consumed and dead cells make it hard for us to digest our food appropriately and diarrhea ensues…

The white blood cells, secrete cytokines that cause the body muscles to shiver. This increases the body temperature, causing the “fever”. The extra heat helps destroying the proteins in the viral skin, while the shivers cause the body aches.

Fever causes an increase in the blood flow to the head and that in turn cause headaches.

And so forth…

Does the immune system kill all the viruses at the same time, or each virus must run its course?

Our immune system is usually very specific, and every virus must be dealt with differently. Some viruses are more evasive than others and some others tend to be suppressive the bone marrow and hence, to the immune system, causing delays and confusion, and …more infections.

So, in general viruses tend to run their courses individually.

Some look-alike viruses can be dealt with faster, moreover, previous immunity (previous infections, immunity, or partial immunity from vaccines) will hasten the eradication.

What can we do?

Contrary to bacteria, viruses are not living organisms and they cannot sustain life out of the human host. While a bacteria can survive on a computer keyboard or a dollar bill forever, viruses can only survive few minutes on objects and surfaces.

Short of us sneezing on each other’s and constantly shaking hands, viruses may be easier to prevent than we think.

  • Good separation from sick persons
  • Ventilate homes periodically.
  • Good handwashing after physical contact and prior to eating
  • Avoid touching our faces during the sick season (nose picking, eye rubbing, tooth picking…)
  • While viruses thrive in cold environments, they are usually hurt by warmth. Furthermore, our nasal passages and the airway’s natural defenses are usually impaired when exposed to cold air. For that reason, an undershirt, thick clothing, coat, scarf, a hat, and adequate winter clothing are essential (most parents know this is a lost battle with their children). 
  • Keep your children at home when they have a fever and don’t send them to school/daycare.
  • Vaccines (COVID, Flu, and now RSV). While vaccines remain a controversial issue amongst us. They are strongly advisable by the medical community especially for high risk individuals. While the adult RSV vaccine is readily available, the infant version of the vaccine remains in very short supply.

What are the best antibiotics to treat viral infections?

  • I feel the awareness in our community about the futility of antibiotics against viruses is exemplary. They indeed do not help, sometimes make the symptoms worse, and dangerously add to the rising epidemic of drug resistance amongst Bacteria.
  • There are some antiviral medications that can be prescribed against COVID and the Influenza. They limit the reproduction of the virus and thus limit the sickness duration and the spread. They however have to be started within the first 1-2 days of the illness and often this can be logistically impossible.
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