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How to Protect Yourself From the Flu

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mar6homespunweb.jpgBy Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden

RISMEDIA, March 6, 2008-(MCT)-This year’s flu season was off to a slow start until mid-February when the Centers for Disease Control reported that 44 states had widespread influenza activity. It has developed into a flu season more severe than that of the past several years.

Influenza vaccines protect against two different types of flu virus-influenza A and influenza B. Both of these virus types have several different strains, and usually one or two of them predominate each year. In addition, since these viruses are able to mutate, or change, scientists have to come up with a new vaccine each year.

As you might imagine, this is a bit of a guessing game. Each spring, researchers try to figure out which strains are most likely to cause the flu the following season. Vaccine development and production then gets under way.

Scientists usually are pretty good at this, but last spring they were a bit off in their predictions, and as a result, about 45% of the strains causing this year’s flu are not covered by our current flu vaccine. Unfortunately, one of these strains, known as H3N2, is a nasty one, and tends to cause more severe illness than some of the others.

That may be why you’ve recently noticed more severe and prolonged symptoms in the people around you, or perhaps in yourself as well. However, even if this year’s vaccine doesn’t work perfectly, it still has benefits. If you get the flu, chances are your symptoms will be milder, and your risk of complications like pneumonia will be lower if you have been vaccinated.

Flu vaccine is recommended by the CDC for everyone in the United States over the age of 6 months, but especially for higher-risk groups, including those with chronic disease or compromised immune systems, residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, and all adults over the age of 50.

For those of you who skipped a flu shot this year, you may still be able to get vaccinated (check with your doctor).

Tips For Staying Well:

- If you are at high risk, your doctor may recommend an antiviral medicine to protect you from the flu, although more drug resistance is being seen this year.
- Wash, wash, wash those hands. Better yet, use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. These kill virus germs on your skin better than soap and water.
- Flu and cold viruses usually are passed on by hand contact, so try to avoid touching door knobs, telephones, etc., where viruses can live; keep your hands away from your eyes and nose, so you don’t inoculate yourself with those viruses.
- Stay home when you’re sick, and avoid close contact with others who are sick.
- As always, check with your doctor if your symptoms persist or become severe, especially if you have any chronic illness or if you are elderly.

Helpful Herbs and Supplements

In addition, several herbs and other dietary supplements are used to prevent or treat the flu as well as colds. Many of these are felt to work by “boosting” the immune system.

They include:

- Elderberry: This herb may shorten the duration of flu symptoms, including muscle aches and fever. Sambucol is a standardized elderberry extract that is used for this; the dose is four tablespoons per day for three days.
- The herbs andrographis (sold as the proprietary product Kan Jang) and Echinacea: These may modestly reduce symptoms of a cold, but evidence for their effect on the flu is not as strong.
- Panax ginseng: This herb may prevent the flu and also improve your response to the flu vaccine; 100 mg per day needs to be taken for four weeks prior to your flu vaccine and continued for eight weeks after.
- Zinc and selenium supplements: These may improve flu vaccine response in the elderly, but probably only in people who are deficient in these minerals. You should be able to get enough of both in a standard multivitamin.
- Zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate nasal gels: These may reduce the duration of colds if started within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. Use them for about seven days, then stop; too much zinc leads to copper malabsorption and anemia.
- Other herbs and supplements that have been used to prevent or treat the flu include astragalus, garlic and high-dose vitamin C, but the jury is still out on these.

What else helps with prevention?

Be sure to get enough sleep. Deep-stage sleep helps to keep your immune system healthy.

Eat lots of produce to boost your intake of vitamin C and other antioxidants.

Try to exercise every day, but don’t overdo it. Extreme exercise, like running a marathon, actually suppresses your immune system and can put you at risk for infection.

De-stress and laugh every day. Stress-reducers like tai chi and laugh-inducers like funny movies seem to give the immune system a boost.

© 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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