When it comes to influenza or more commonly called the "flu," you're probably all set with throat lozenges and your favorite blanket — but what about hydration?
Whether it's you or your children tackling the flu this winter, Abbott research scientist Jennifer Williams, MPH explains that hydration is an important part of recovery. Williams specializes in pediatric nutrition and says that learning how to stay hydrated during illness can not only help ease the symptoms of the flu but can also help get you on the road to recovery.
That's true of both influenza and the stomach flu, which, despite its name, actually has nothing to do with the flu. The "stomach flu," aka gastroenteritis, actually refers to an inflammation in the gastrointestinal or GI tract and is typically caused by viruses or bacteria. The most common cause is norovirus, which spreads through contaminated water, food and unwashed hands.
"The influenza can come with sky-high fevers that drain the water in your body and cause you to sweat out the rest," explains Abbott director of scientific affairs and infectious disease, Norman Moore, PhD, "And, nausea during the stomach flu can make it difficult to consume food or drink, in addition to vomiting and diarrhea that can drain your body of vital fluid and electrolytes."
If you experience the onset of influenza-like symptoms, visit your doctor to be tested and treated right away to help lessen the severity and duration of your illness.
How Hydration Helps the Body
Our Abbott experts explain six ways how staying hydrated during illnesses can help you and your family recover and how fluids and electrolytes help the body work properly.
1. Strengthening the Immune System
"Bodily fluids carry your immune cells throughout your body and staying hydrated helps them get where they need to go to fight off infections," says Williams. She explains that water is a critical component of lymph, a clear-to-white fluid that contains many of the white blood cells, including lymphocytes, that attack invaders in the blood to help you fight off illness.
Infographic: Do You Know the Signs of Dehydration?
2. Lowering Fever
Water is key to regulating core temperature, and dehydration can exacerbate an already existing fever. On the other hand, it's important to realize that mild fevers can be a healthy part of the immune system's response since they mean that your body is at work zapping whatever's got you down.
If you have concerns about a high or long-lasting fever, talk to your doctor to determine the best treatment.
3. Alleviating Headaches
Your body contains a lot of water, about two-thirds of the body is fluid, but your brain has even more. "About eighty percent of the brain is water," Williams explains, "And since dehydration affects blood volume, it can mean your brain isn't getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs, triggering symptoms like dizziness and headaches."
It may be difficult to separate the head and body ailments of sickness from those of dehydration, but if you take dehydration out of the equation, you'll prevent any excess aches and pains during illness.
4. Promoting Healthy Cell Signaling
When it comes to fighting illness-triggered dehydration, fluids aren't the only factor. Electrolytes, including sodium, chloride and potassium, are also lost through sweat, vomiting and diarrhea. They are important to maintaining the body's pH and helping cells absorb and use the fluids you're taking in. Williams emphasizes that the importance of electrolytes in our body cannot be underestimated.
Infographic: How To Stay Hydrated
Electrolyte and fluid losses can cause muscle cramps, headaches and perpetual dehydration by throwing off healthy cell signaling between the brain and muscles. A little sugar is needed for optimal rehydration with electrolytes and water, but Williams notes that sugary sodas or juices contain fewer electrolytes and excess sugar than what is ideal for rehydration. A surplus of sugar can also add to cramping and diarrhea by flooding the intestines with fluid.
Instead of serving up sports drinks and sodas, she recommends a balanced rehydration beverage like Pedialyte®, which contains all of the necessary electrolytes as well as sugar at an optimal level for combatting mild to moderate dehydration in both adults and children.
5. Moisturizing Membranes
"Dry mucous membranes in your nose and mouth are a typical sign of dehydration and maintaining them is critical to the body's ability to fight off infection," Williams says. Healthy hydration levels will help your nose and mouth effectively get rid of bacteria and viruses when coughing, sneezing and, even just breathing. Moisture also helps to heal broken membranes so additional bacteria don't get into the body.
6. Improving Nutrient Absorption
Hydration is also key to digestion, and the gastrointestinal tract is better able to absorb and use nutrients from food when there's enough water in your system. When essential nutrients are available to the cells in the body, it can appropriately recover from illness.
When You Get Sick
Unfortunately, sometimes even preventive measures can't keep us from getting the influenza. If you can't prevent flu entirely, the next best thing is to be prepared to fight it effectively with good hydration and an anti-viral medication if prescribed by your doctor. If you experience flu-like symptoms, visit your doctor to be tested and treated right away.