The Real Virus You Need to Worry About (And It's Not the One From China)

The sky is falling... again.

Every few years, folks get whipped up into hysterics over the newest "pandemic." Swine flu, avian flu, SARS... And now we've got this new "Wuhan coronavirus."

Today, the World Health Organization ("WHO") plans to hold an emergency committee meeting to see if this outbreak constitutes a public health emergency. But, as we write, China has already quarantined two cities – Wuhan (the likely epicenter of the virus) and nearby Huanggang.

As of this morning, more than 500 people have contracted the virus and 17 have died. The fear stems from learning that it's likely transmissible from person to person. What's more, it's a new virus – we haven't seen it before.

What do we know? And should we worry?

We know that it's a coronavirus, which typically infects animals and rarely spreads to humans. That's why investigators are looking at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. This is likely where the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak started, as the original folks who got sick all went there.

We've seen a few coronaviruses before, including SARS and MERS, which are both respiratory viruses with outbreaks that claimed about 1,600 lives total.

For the most part, coronaviruses are more dangerous for folks with compromised immune systems, including people over the age of 65, people living with HIV or AIDS, and folks going through immunotherapy for cancer.

As we write, there's only one confirmed case of Wuhan coronavirus in the U.S. A man in Washington state tested positive for the virus. Airports are now screening folks coming from China and surrounding countries for symptoms in an effort to quarantine anyone who might be sick.

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever, dry coughing, and trouble breathing. It's similar to pneumonia, and if it progresses, people can develop fluid in their lungs, too.

That sounds awful. But let's put things in to perspective: To date, 17 people worldwide have died from the Wuhan coronavirus. But this flu season has already claimed 6,600 lives just in the U.S. That includes 39 children.

So, all this fearmongering and emergency declarations are overblown. Just like when the swine flu hit, I wrote:

And remember that the plain old regular flu (the one people get a shot for each year) kills many more people every year in the U.S. than the swine flu has or EVER WILL kill. This is because really old and really young people with weak immune systems can't handle any sort of infection, let alone one that affects your breathing.

Pay attention to what you can control – keeping yourself safe from the real threat: influenza.

On Tuesday, we shared some tips for knowing the difference between a cold and the flu and what medications are worth your money. (You can read the issue here.)

But the best way to fight colds and the flu (and this Wuhan coronavirus) is to practice good defense. Here are some of my best tips for staying healthy while you're out and about this season...

The number one way to protect yourself: Wash your hands well and often. Wash your hands after using public transit or doing activities with a lot of public interaction (think pumping gas or pushing a grocery cart). Simple soap and water are enough.

Do what I do and scrub your hands together vigorously in water for 15 to 20 seconds. Occasionally, I'll use a little bit of regular bar soap if my hands are really dirty.

Second, pop some vitamin C. I take this along with some zinc whenever I feel a cold starting. You can also take some before going on a trip.

Pack a face mask. If you're concerned about contracting any kind of cold or flu, consider taking a face mask and wearing it if you're sitting near someone who seems sick (coughing, sneezing, blowing his or her nose, etc.)

And as I've written before, the germiest place on an airplane is actually the tray table. Take a few wipes with you for a quick wipe down of the tray and armrests.

And whatever you do, avoid touching your face unless your hands are washed and clean.

Finally, remember that the real problem with the flu is the secondary infections. In the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 (at least 50 million deaths worldwide), most people died from the secondary infections caused by bacteria, not the virus itself.

Today, we have antibiotics to easily knock out these sorts of infections. But if you have the flu, you're still more susceptible to things like pneumonia and other complications. For example, buried in the news coverage for the Wuhan coronavirus is a story about a young woman who died from sepsis. She contracted the deadly infection after getting sick with the flu.

So, if you do suspect that you have the flu and you also have a weakened immune system, go to your doctor. And again, if you're in a high-risk group, get the flu shot. It reduces the number of hospitalizations and deaths for folks who get the flu.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 23, 2020