This is the time of year when I may see several patients with symptoms of what they call "a touch of the flu" – a little sneezing, perhaps some coughing, maybe a sore throat, some chest congestion, tired, headachey, maybe even a little queasy stomach with some diarrhea. More often than not, however, they just have a bad seasonal cold, or even a stomach virus, and do not realize what a bout with the real flu feels like.
As I tell my patients, despite what many people think, influenza is not just a slightly more intense, harmless variant of the seasonal cold with added intestinal symptoms. Even though cold and influenza viruses both cause upper respiratory illness, they do not cause the same illness.
In fact, influenza is not as easy to get as a common cold virus. Flu viruses are generally only around in a specific season and cold viruses are present year round. Flu makes you feel a whole lot worse than a cold with its typical combination symptoms of fever, fatigue, joint and body aches and that "hit by a Mack truck" feeling.
However, there are also other illnesses that share these same symptoms so generalizations do not always mean that you have the flu. Flu can also have serious side effects that can land you in the hospital and may even be fatal.
In fact, there are a lot of myths about influenza that I'd like to clear up for you so you can be aware of what the importance of preventing and treating flu is all about. Let's look at a few of them:
Myths About Influenza
Flu Vaccines Give You The Flu: This is absolutely untrue. A flu vaccine is made from a killed virus meaning its active, disease producing component is not present in the vaccine. This idea likely came from the fact that, in the past, there were some side effects associated with a flu vaccine that may have felt like flu symptoms.
Some people may have been sensitive to the preservative, thimerosal, used in vaccines that prevents contamination by bacteria or fungi. Today, however, according to the CDC, in the 2010-2011 flu season, there are 74 million doses of thimerosal-free vaccine available. If you feel you may be sensitive to thimerosal, and / or just want to avoid it, make sure you specifically request a thimerosal-free vaccine. Flu vaccines are only good for one season. A new one is needed every year.
Antibiotics Kill The Flu: Many of my patients are surprised and disappointed when they come in asking for antibiotics for their flu symptoms and I tell them that antibiotics do not work on the flu. Influenza is caused by a virus which antibiotics have no effect on. Antibiotics only work on bacterial and some fungal infections. However, some people do get bacterial infections of the lungs and sometimes the sinuses with their flu. Then, I will prescribe antibiotics.
Nothing Treats The Flu: While it's true that nothing cures the flu, there are several prescription drugs as well as alternative supplements that can help lesson flu symptoms a great deal. Prescription drugs include Tamiflu, a pill, and Relenza, an inhaled medicine. Alternative helpers include "Os", short for oscillococcinum, and Echinacea, which need to be taken at the very first symptoms of the flu within the first 24-36 hours. Elderberry (Sambucol) extract has also shown research promise in reducing flu symptoms by 56%. Andrographis (Indian Echinacea) taken within the first 24-48 hours stimulates the immune system to fight viruses. Homeopathics of ferrum phos, dulcamarra, nux vomica, gelsemium, arsenicum, bryona, Rhus tox and belladonna can give significant relief to flu symptoms.
In fact, homeopathic flu remedies were credited with 100% survival rates in patients who took them during the flu epidemic of 1918. See a practitioner skilled in the use of homeopaths as exact matches of remedy to symptoms must be done to obtain the best effect.
Flu Only Really Affects The Elderly: It is true that the elderly may be more susceptible to getting the flu and / or being more seriously affected by it because of lowered immunity and complications, like pneumonia, that can set in. However, people of all ages can and do get the flu and need to take the same precautions to prevent it. Children under 6 months are at highest risk for the illness because they are too young to get the vaccine. If you are around an infant this age, you should get vaccinated and keep the baby away from anyone who is ill.
Facts About The Flu
Hand Washing Best Prevention: If people washed their hands more, especially after being in public restrooms, grocery and retail stores, anywhere that other people are touching surfaces, objects, many cases of colds and flu could be prevented. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you and / or make use of the wipes that most stores provide to wipe down cart handles.
Nasal Washes / Irrigants: Keep a little bottle of aloe / saline nasal spray with you. After being out in public, squirt some into both nostrils, hold for a moment and then blow out into a tissue. This rinses out any inhaled viruses, bacteria, mold spores before they enter your lungs.
Boost Your Immune System: The best illness prevention strategy is to keep your immune system healthy and functioning at optimal level. This means eating nutritious food (add some raw, chopped garlic to your daily vegetables), getting enough rest (at least 7 hours a night), exercise (at least 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week) and supplementing with immune -system boosting vitamins and minerals like Vitamin C at least 1,000 mg a day, Vitamin D3 1-2,000 mg a day, Resveratrol 100-200 mg a day, Zinc 25 mg a day, Quercetin 100 mg a day, Beta Carotene 5,000 units a day. Replace only what's missing and / or not adequate levels in your multivitamin.
Getting the flu is no picnic. It can make you feel terrible and can have serious complications. The best way to deal with influenza is to prevent it! Knowing the facts about influenza will help. In addition, get a yearly flu vaccine, keep your immune system healthy and remember to wash your hands whenever out in public places. Have a healthy, Happy Flu-Free New Year!
Mark Rosenberg, MD
Institute For Healthy Aging