Take Five For The Flu

If you're one of the millions of people who expected a flu shot this year and won't be able to get one, there are several measures you can take to reduce your chances of contracting the virus. And if you do find yourself succumbing to the classic symptoms of respiratory congestion, fever, fatigue, and aches and pains, you may be able to lessen its severity.

People in America have come to expect good health as a given and getting sick isn't something we have time for in our society. Luckily, for most of us, the flu is more an inconvenience than a danger. Still, for the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, the flu can be more than bothersome; it can be life-threatening. Those at risk should be sure to see a doctor if they do get the flu since there are some antiviral medications which can be prescribed to help some symptoms diminish.

Everyone can "take five for the flu" by adhering to the following advice:

1. Take care of yourself. This may be obvious to some, but your number one priority is to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep at night, eat well and drink plenty of fluids. Enjoy cooked vegetables throughout the winter months for their easy digestibility as well as the warmth and comfort they provide in cold weather months. Try expanding your cooking repetoire with nourishing selections such as soups and stews. Cut back on sweets and white carbohydrates. As long as you feel well, continue your exercise routine, or even start a new one now. Exercise helps your immune system by improving circulation and improves the quality of your night's sleep as well.

2. Limit contact with people. The flu can be carried by people who may not appear to be ill from outward appearances. You may choose to forego a sip from the wine chalice at Sunday services, avoid shaking hands or hugging friends, and stay away from crowds. While most of us may worry about using public rest rooms, studies have shown that desks, office equipment and even the TV remote in hotel rooms harbor more germs than do toilets. So wash your hands and your work counters frequently – at home, in the office and while you are on the road.

3. Take Vitamin C. Vitamin C is known to decrease the severity of colds and flu. A study of German dockworkers showed that the group that took 100 mg of Vitamin C each day caught the flu 28% less often than the control group. Of those that did develop the flu, the average duration of the illness was 10% less in those who took Vitamin C than those who did not. While 10% may not seem like a lot, it feels like more because the symptoms start to diminish more quickly. Higher doses of Vitamin C, up to 2000 mg/day, may also reduce the severity of the flu.

4. Try herbal remedies. Echinacea has long been used for colds and flu. It appears to work by stimulating the immune system. Double blind studies in Germany showed that infections and flu-like symptoms clear more rapidly when people take echinacea. Another helpful herbal product is elderberry. Studies show that elderberry (also sold under the brand name Sambucol) shortens the duration of the flu. This pleasant-tasting liquid can be kept on hand, and taken at the first sign of flu symptoms. Lastly, there is a homeopathic remedy called Oscillococcinum which is widely used to treat symptoms of flu. A few studies done on this product indicate that there is a small but statistically significant reduction in the length of the illness. However, taking it does not help you to prevent getting ill in the first place.

Don't be dismayed by the fact that these remedies only shorten the length of the flu by 10% or so. Rather, think of it this way: if flu symptoms normally run for 5 days, and are shortened by 10%, that's a half day off your worst day, and that's real relief! And what if you wind up with stuffed up sinuses for days on end even after your other symptoms are gone? Regular over-the-counter pills are of little use. Most nasal sprays cannot be used for more than 3 days or they will start rebounding. Instead use a nasal solution such as Sinus Rinse, or try some Mucinex which relieves nasal congestion and is available at most drugstores.

5. And finally, relax. Whatever you can do to decrease stress in your life, do it now. Set aside time in your day for relaxation; it's more than just a luxury, it's an important first step to good health. You needn't look far to discover what it is that relaxes you. Think about you would do if you had more time to spend. For some it's participation in a hands-on activity like exercise or cooking, for others it might be quiet reading and listening to music. You can reduce the incidence of flu infections by stopping for a moment, taking a deep breath and resolving to enjoy life.

Judith Mabel, Ph.D., is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in private practice in Brookline, Mass. Learn more about nutrition and health by visiting her website http://www.nutritionboston.com or contact Judith at 617-232-3073 or JMabel@aol.com.