Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Illness symptoms

I've been ill the past few days, which, because I'm a biology nerd, has me thinking about the nature of illness symptoms.

Most likely, I've got either a bad cold or a very low grade flu. My symptoms started on Sunday with sinus congestion and a post nasal drip. By the middle of the night I was running a fever (I don't have a thermometer, so I'm not sure how bad of one), and on Monday it had spread to include nausea, lethargy, aching joints, a headache, loss of appetite, dry heaves, and what I gather was a lot of swallowed air--my stomach felt distended, and I was burping a lot with no taste residual to it. Today I'm somewhat more coherent, my fever's broken (though when I woke up my bed sheets were soaked in sweat--I'm washing them at the moment), and my joints don't ache except when I cough. However, I've developed a persistent dry, unproductive cough.

Many symptoms of mild illnesses I don't actually treat very often. This is because a number of the symptoms are part of the body's defense mechanism against the illness. Low grade fevers, for instance, seem to increase the speed at which the body recovers, most likely from a combination of the increased kinetics of some immune reactions and the very narrow temperature range of some pathogens. As such, I typically only take medications to break a fever when it's 4 or more degrees above normal, as that starts getting into the danger range. Headaches are often a sign of dehydration, so rather than taking an analgesic when my head hurts, my first instinct is to drink a lot of water (or, if I'm ill, gatorade or fruit juice--if I'm dehydrating from symptoms at either end, I'm losing more than just water). Then again, I get headaches all the time and thus they don't faze me too much unless they're migraines, which I get rarely but treat as soon as they show themselves.

A dry, unproductive cough, though, seems to me to fall into the category of "symptom caused by the infection agent as a way to further spread the disease". I can't see how it benefits my body at all, as it doesn't seem to be removing any irritants from the lungs. That puts it along the lines of the diarrhea produced by cholera, though obviously less dangerous (almost all deaths from cholera are due to dehydration, which is primarily caused by that diarrhea--keep the patient hydrated, and the disease will clear naturally with essentially zero mortality). As such, it seems a reasonable sort of symptom to treat medically.

In reality, though, my major mode of action when ill is to avoid people when possible. I stayed at home yesterday for essentially the whole day (the exception was dragging myself to an IM volleyball game because my team would have had to play shorthanded if I didn't show up--weird co-rec rules about male/female ratios, but I did advise them all to wash their hands as soon as we were done because I might have infected the ball--and stopping by the market on the way home for some basic supplies), and I did all my labwork today before 7am so that I wouldn't overlap with my labmates and get them ill. I've forced myself to eat bread and saltines, and to drink gatorade, fruit juice, and ginger ale, even though I have no appetite just because I know I need to get something in me. A few mugs of dissolving chicken bouillon in hot water have helped my throat a good deal, as have some excessively hot showers with the exhaust fan turned off. Last night, the medication of choice was NyQuil (as my Dad calls it, the night time sniffling, sneezing, aching, coughing, passing out on the kitchen floor medicine), and today I've moved over to the nondrowsy DayQuil option. I've largely been sitting on my couch (head vertical to promote sinus drainage) wrapped in a blanket, and focusing my moments of coherence on short bursts of productivity. Most likely, I should be fine by tomorrow, given that I'm pretty sure that if I were in high school I would have gone to school today (though not yesterday). Still, at times like this, I tend to be very thankful for having been born into a society which embraces functional Western medicine. As miserable as I felt yesterday even when using pharmaceuticals, it would have been a lot worse without them.

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