UA Program in Integrative Medicine Offers Advice for Surviving Flu Season
This year's flu season is off to an early and potentially deadly start, with four childhood fatalities in Colorado last week. Even more troubling than the early cases of influenza this year is the shift to a different type of flu virus -- one that is only partially covered by the flu vaccine.
To help make it through this flu season, members of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona offer the following tips:
To avoid the flu:
- Wash hands frequently and obsessively -- use soap and warm water. Take alcohol-containing "instant soaps" for use in the car and while traveling.
- If you need to travel by air during the cold and flu season, drink plenty of bottled water to battle dehydration. Because cabin air typically is very dry, dehydration can result, which can promote the development of coughs, sore throats, colds and other viral infections. Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine when flying because both can worsen the dehydration. Wash hands frequently while on board -- use alcohol hand wipes. Use a nasal saline spray (preferably free of preservatives) to keep your nasal passages moist and prevent dryness and cracking, which can also invite infection. There are a few botanical preparations that may be useful in "boosting" your immune responses, including echinacea (one dropper of the tincture three-four times daily) and astragalus, a Chinese botanical preparation that can boost the immune system to help prevent (and even treat) colds and flu. Astragalus is available in capsules, tinctures, or dried root (that can be added to soups). Typical dose is 2 capsules twice daily, or as recommended by the product label.
- Keep in mind that the flu (as well as colds) can be spread by casual contact with inanimate objects - such as a telephone, a keyboard, a door handle, or the toys that your child shares with other children at school. If you've touched a contaminated surface, the germs can easily pass from your hand to your nose, mouth, or eyes, and lead to infection. Keep your fingers away from your nose, mouth, and your eyes to avoid infecting yourself with virus particles that you may have picked up.
- Remember the other factors that may predispose you to pick up a respiratory virus, including psychological stress, excessive fatigue, and poor nutrition. During the cold and flu season, try to eat well, get plenty of sleep, and reduce stress. These can have a huge impact on your disease resistance.
If you catch the flu:
- Rest in bed. Drink plenty of water. Avoid aspirin. Try to avoid taking medications to reduce your fever, if possible - the fever is the body's natural treatment for the flu (unless you have heart disease).
- If you have any serious underlying condition (such as heart disease, lung disease, etc.), it is important to consult with your health care provider, since influenza can be especially devastating in debilitated, elderly or otherwise-compromised individuals.
- If you can start anti-influenza medications within 48 hours of the first appearance of symptoms, you may decrease the duration of illness by 1-2 days. There are four conventional medications -- two older medications amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), and two newer drugs, zanamivir (Relenza) and osteltamivir (Tamiflu). Each of these medications has specific benefits and potential complications -- you'll need to discuss possible prescription treatment with your health care provider.
- Elderberrry extract, echinacea, and astragalus have all been reported to boost the immune response.
- Garlic contains natural antibiotic and anti-viral compounds. Eat a few fresh, raw cloves daily, as tolerated.
- Maintain adequate humidity in the home. For sinus congestion, we recommend the use of a Neti pot with warm saltwater, to humidify the nasal passages and wash out mucus.
- If your condition acutely worsens, or you have breathing problems, chest pain, compromised mental acuity, or worsening symptoms after the first day, you will need to be promptly examined by a physician.
- Don't give your cold to others! Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue away and wash your hands. Be sure to use tissues rather than a handkerchief. Use separate hand towels in the bathroom for healthy and ill people.