Last flu season was the worst in nearly a decade. It was a wake-up call to how serious influenza can be and highlights the importance of properly preparing before the season is in full swing. Nobody wants to get flu, so it is crucial that we all know how to do our part to prevent and limit its spread.
Preparing for Flu
There is a lot you can do to prepare for this flu season. Don't wait until symptoms strike - make sure you're ready to take quick action if flu hits your household. Create an emergency contact list with nearby clinics and doctor phone numbers. Consider getting vaccinated. The flu vaccine prevents against some strains of flu and can make your symptoms milder if you get infected from other strains not included. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October before the regular flu season begins, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body.1
You can take everyday precautions to decrease the spread of germs during flu season. The number one thing you can do is avoid individuals who are infected. You will also want to wash your hands and sanitize the surfaces around you.
There are a couple of things you can do to build your immune system, so it is strong and ready when flu season arrives. Moderate exercise is a positive way to maintain and support a healthy immune system that is capable of fighting off viruses. Studies show that when you incorporate moderate amounts of exercise into your routine increases your immune system function.2 (Take care not to exceed your body's limits, causing physical and psychological stress and talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.)
The best defense against the flu is making sure to get enough sleep. Be aware of how much sleep you are getting each night to keep your body well rested. Different age groups require varied hours of sleep each day. Most adults need about 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and teens require even more, about 9 hours daily. Growing children need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night.3
Limiting stress is also important for maintaining a healthy immune system. A relaxation technique I use with my patients is simple, yet effective - breathing. This may seem rudimentary, yet it is a practice that is often overlooked. Take a quiet minute to focus on your breathing. It can be a great way to de-stress at work or before bed. The act of consciously breathing relaxes the mind and lowers stress hormones that weaken the immune system.
If you are like most of my patients, you simply might not know what to do when you get flu, or how to recognize it when it starts.
Many people think they have never had flu or won't get flu, even though the CDC estimates that 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population on average suffers through symptoms each year and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized.4 Recognizing flu symptoms is an important first step toward diagnoses and recovery.
Here are the signs to look out for when deciding if you have flu:
- A 100°F or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with flu has a fever);
- A cough and/or sore throat;
- A runny or stuffy nose;
- Headaches and/or body aches;
- Fatigue; and/or
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea (most common for children).
Once you determine you have flu, it's time to take immediate action. If you or someone in your family comes down with flu, here are some tips for recovery:
- Take probiotics: Help restore balance to the gut microbiome and strengthen its ability to interact with your immune system. Over 70 percent of the immune system resides in the gut.5 Gut-friendly bacteria are needed not only for a healthy digestive system but also for a robust immune system. Probiotics can be taken sublingually or incorporated into your diet through foods high in live cultures and fermentation such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut.
- Take a homeopathic medicine: I recommend that my patients keep Oscillococcinum on hand: an easy-to-take, non-drowsy medicine that can be used for anyone ages 2 and up. Clinical studies show that Oscillococcinum shortens both the severity and duration of flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, body aches, chills, and fever. The latest study published in a British scientific journal found that when patients took Oscillo within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms nearly 63 percent showed "clear improvement" or "complete resolution" within 48 hours.6 It's widely available at local supermarkets or pharmacies.
- Eat chicken soup: Mother knew best when she served you a hot bowl of chicken soup as it has properties that slow the movement of infection-fighting white blood cells. According to research published in the journal Chest, when white cells move more slowly, they spend more time in the areas of the body that need them most. The steam from the soup also helps open stuffed-up nasal passages, and the salty broth can soothe a sore throat.
- Suck on zinc lozenges: Pop them as soon as you feel symptoms set in. Zinc is a mineral essential to the immune system, and a 2013 Cochrane Library analysis of 18 trials found that ingesting a daily dose of 75 milligrams within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms reduces the duration of the illness.7
- Take olive leaf: The main component of the olive leaf, Oleuropein, provides the distinctive tangy, pungent, bitter flavor found in high quality extra virgin olive oils. It's also responsible for most of olive oil's antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and disease-fighting characteristics that help modulate the body's inflammatory response and promote peak immune system performance to help you tackle flu. Use it to help fight bacteria and viruses and defend against cold and flu.
- Try elderberry: The elderberry plant has been used medicinally for many years and is thought to help treat the flu by increasing the number of antibodies that fight off flu viruses. Elderberries contain hemagglutinin protein. This protein has been shown to stop a virus' capability to replicate and prevents the virus from causing infection if taken before exposure. Elderberry extract is found in a number of easy-to-take forms, like syrups and gummies. When taken after infection, this supplement can keep the virus from spreading and reduces the duration of flu symptoms.8
In addition to taking Oscillococcinum and getting plenty of rest, also take immune-boosting supplements including vitamin C, D, and omega-3. Most importantly, do not hesitate to seek medical attention if symptoms escalate.
Containing Spread of Flu
If just one person in your household comes down with the flu, it can spread to everyone in a matter of hours. You may be able to pass on flu to someone else before your symptoms present. Most people are contagious in the first 3 to 4 days after their symptoms begin but can remain so up to 7 days after becoming sick.9
Studies show that merely breathing can spread flu viruses. Researchers have noted that almost half of the airborne particles surrounding a person suffering from flu are from their breathing, not sneezing or coughing.10 This is an important factor to consider when you feel sick and wonder if you should go to work or school, etc. You can't stop breathing, so it is in everyone's best interest to stay secluded if you have flu.
Flu is a virus that can make the body vulnerable to other serious health complications, such as bacterial pneumonia. Deaths from flu are often caused by complications from a weakened immune system and can also compromise other existing health problems. If symptoms worsen after the first three days of illness, especially if fever subsides and then returns, seek medical attention right away.
- Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/vaccinations.htm#when-vaccinate. Published August 31, 2018.
- Nieman DC. Exercise, upper respiratory tract infection, and the immune system. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 1994;26(2):128-139. doi:10.1249/00005768-199402000-00002.
- Davis JL. Prevent Flu: Healthy Habits Beat the Virus. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/features/prevent-flu-healthy-habits-beat-the-virus. Published October 2010.
- The Flu Season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm. Published July 12, 2018.
- Downey M. Probiotics Offer Powerful Anti-Flu Defense. Life Extension Magazine. https://www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2018/2/Probiotics-Fight-Dangerous-Winter-Flu/Page-01.
- Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled, double-blind evaluation. Br Homeopath J. 1998;87:69-76.
- Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD001364. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub4. Published June 18, 2018.
- Sibley C. Elderberries: A Potent Cold and Flu Remedy? Pharmacy Times. https://www.pharmacytimes.com/contributor/cate-sibley-pharmd/2017/10/elderberries-a-potent-cold-and-flu-remedy. Published October 19, 2017.
- Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm. Published August 27, 2018.
- Preidt R. Flu May Be Spread By Just Breathing. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20180119/flu-may-be-spread-by-just-breathing#1. Published January 19, 2018.
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Ken Redcross, MD
Dr. Ken Redcross, MD, is author of “Bond: The 4 Cornerstones of a Lasting and Caring Relationship with Your Doctor,” and founder of Redcross Concierge one of the first full-service concierge, personalized medical practices in the United States. His new book, underscores the importance of having a good relationship with your doctor for better health—which is especially important during flu season.
Dr. Redcross earned his medical degree from Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, specializing in internal medicine.