01/17/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Influenza: The Fast-Track Virus

Achoo! Is it a cold, the creeping crud or the flu? If the last of these, you're among the thousands who've fallen victim to the influenza epidemic ravaging the nation this winter. At this writing, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 47 states have reported widespread cases of influenza. Nationally, over Thousands of people have been hospitalized, and at 20 children have died, and it could be the largest outbreak of flu in a decade. Doctors' offices and emergency rooms are crammed with patients complaining of flu-like symptoms and hoping for a cure -- or at least relief from its distressing symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the flu season typically lasts from October through May. While geographic mobility may contribute to the virus' spread, its early arrival this year has perplexed public health officials. Added to its premature appearance are worries about the virus's speedway tendencies. Not only does influenza spread rapidly through the air in droplets from the coughs and sneezes of sufferers or from surfaces they have recently touched, but strains of the virus are always rapidly evolving.

Influenza has raced through centuries of human history and left several appalling accounts in its wake. Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates observed its symptoms and dubbed the disease the "Cough of Perinthus" after an ailing Turkish city now part of Greece. Theoretically, traders, sailors or soldiers had transmitted influenza from there to Athens, but no one knows for certain. Even today, public health officials claim that tracking the origins of an outbreak can be challenging.

One example of influenza's mysterious path can be found in history's pandemics, those seemingly illogical explosions of the disease that occur on multiple continents. Among the most famous was the 1580 pandemic, which started in Russia, then sprang up in Africa and later surfaced in Europe where it killed 8,000 residents of Rome and decimated several Spanish cities. Other pandemics occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, notably the one of 1830-33 that sickened a quarter of the population. Most notorious of all was the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, which spread globally -- even to the Arctic and remote Pacific -- killing an estimated 20 to 40 million people.

Thankfully, more recent pandemics -- including the "Asian flu" of 1957-58, the Hong Kong Flu of 1968, and the 2009 swine flu -- have been less severe. Typically, most people survive the disease but remain sick for about two weeks with sore throats, high fevers, headaches, muscle aches and respiratory congestion. Those at particular risk are the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with serious medical conditions. Sometimes normally healthy people with severe congestion contract secondary illnesses, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, both of which require immediate medical attention. For that reason, public health officials strongly advise taking the flu vaccine each year.

Paradoxically, remedies to ease debilitating symptoms for victims of influenza have improved only marginally over the centuries. Among the earliest herbal remedies was boneset, a perennial herb used reduce high fevers. Another was mullein, a European flowering plant later naturalized in America and used as an expectorant. A third was yarrow, a flowering plant in the aster family which, when mixed with goldenseal, served as a decongestant.

By the 19th century, patent medicines claiming to relieve symptoms of influenza began appearing in North America. One of the oldest was Ayers Cherry Pectoral, promoted from 1847 into the 1920s because of its alleged "magical" qualities. Those who took the medicine often felt temporarily better -- largely because that "magic" was a mix of cherry syrup, heroin, morphine and a hefty dose of grain alcohol.

Brown's Bronchial Troches was another popular 19th-century palliative still sold in the early 20th century. A New York Times advertisement of Nov. 29, 1860 proclaimed, "Few are aware of the importance of checking a cough or 'common cold' in its first stage that ... would yield to a mild remedy, that would soon attack the lungs." Created by "Rev. E.. Rowley, president of Athens College, Tennessee" the troches were "sold by druggists everywhere for twenty-five cents a box."

Following the devastating flu pandemic of 1918-1919 still another, Scott's Emulsion, claimed in a Jan. 26, 1920 Barnstable Partriot advertisement that the tonic "helped thousands recover their strength in the aftermath of influenza or its debilitating complications." Who could doubt it? After all, the emulsion was "produced in Norway" and "refined in laboratories" in New Jersey.

Today, knowing that influenza is a virus and cannot be cured with antibiotics, sufferers still rely upon time-tested remedies. Among them are decongestants, anti-fever medications, hot soups, teas and bed rest to alleviate symptoms. A recent addition to that regimen is new anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu, which may reduce or shorten influenza's duration but again, cannot cure it.

By spring, strains of the speedy influenza virus will evolve again as virologists race against next season's deadline to create a new vaccine. For all the wonders of modern medicine, nature always seems to be one step ahead of human ingenuity.