Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Flu

The Flu, otherwise known as Influenza. Influenza usually occurs during the winter and can cause disease among all age groups. Some believe it is just a bad cold. That is a big understatement. Influenza is a serious contagious viral illness that hospitalizes an average of 200,000 people each year, 20,000 of them being children under five years of age. Luckily, most healthy people recover from the flu without complications. Serious illness and death are highest among people 65 years and older and children less than 2 years old. As many as 36,000 people in the United States die from the flu each year.

Now, Do I have your attention??

Influenza usually starts suddenly and may include the following symptoms:

  • Fever (usually high)- can average 102-104 for 3-5 days.
  • Headache
  • Tiredness (can be extreme)- inability to get out of bed
  • Cough- can be severe at times
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches- makes it unable to function normally
  • Diarrhea and vomiting (more common among children than adults)
So how is Influenza spread?

Influenza is spread primarily through sneezing and coughing. Contaminated objects (hands, phones, shared eating utensils) can also spread the flu. Close contact (within 3 feet) is usually required for transmission. You can spread the virus for up to two days before showing symptoms. Once ill, you'll be contagious for about 5 days. The flu usually lasts 3-7 days for most people, although some symptoms can last for up to 2 weeks.

How can I prevent catching Influenza?

Traditionally, we offer the "flu shot" for prevention. The flu shot contains portions of dead flu virus to which your body forms an antibody response. These antibodies are what give you protection from the flu. You can not contract the flu from the flu shot. Some people do get a reaction the the flu shot, such as low grade fever, headache and mild body aches. This is usually an indication of a good antibody response to the flu shot. Do not get a flu shot if you are allergic to eggs or any other ingredient contained in the flu shot. Most flu shots contain a preservative called thimerosal. Do not get a flu shot if you are allergic to thimerosal. There is a small supply of thimerosal free flu vaccines available. If you are in need of this version please call our office and we will try to obtain it for you.

Other preventative techniques include:
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water
  • Use tissue when you cough, sneeze or spit and dispose of the tissue in a covered trash bin

  • Keep your hands away from your face-The flu virus enters your body through the eyes, nose, mouth, and possibly even the ears.
  • Clean shared space more often such as phone receivers, keyboards, steering wheels and office equipment
  • Do not share personal items such as, forks, spoons, toothbrushes and towels
  • Avoid crowds
  • Avoid people who are sick with respiratory illnesses
Are there any natural ways to prevent Influenza?

There are many other options that are available for prevention and are listed below:

1. Get enough sleep. Your immune system functions much better when you get enough sleep. Most people really need about 8 hours per night for optimal health. If you're body is fatigued, it simply won't be able to fight off the flu virus (or any other infection) very well.

2. Exercise regularly. Exercise helps keep your immune system strong. In fact, a recent study showed that mice who performed mild exercise as soon as they were exposed to the flu virus had much lower death rates. Read about the study here.

3. Avoid sugar. Even small amounts of sugar can significantly impair your immune function, making you more susceptible to a flu infection. A large amount of sugar, such as the amount found in a normal can of soda, hurts your immune function for hours.

4. Drink lots of pure water. Keeping your mucous membranes well-hydrated is a key to helping them fight off viruses. Shoot for about eight 8-ounce glasses per day.

5. Reduce stress. Too much stress has a highly negative impact on your overall health and, over time, it will make you much more susceptible to a flu infection. Studies show that prolonged stress is at least partially responsible for 90% of all illness and disease. Regular exercise and sufficient sleep both help reduce stress levels. Also, meditation is a proven stress-buster that is easy, enjoyable and can be used on a daily basis.

6. Get fresh air every day. During the winter the dry heat from indoor heating systems dries out your mucous membranes and makes you more susceptible to viruses. If you can, during the day, crack open a window or two to give your body some relief.

7. Drink little or no alcohol during flu season. Too much alcohol impairs liver and immune function, which leaves you open to all kinds of infections. Heavy drinkers are especially susceptible to flu infections. Also, alcohol dehydrates your body which is always bad during flu season.

8. Don't smoke... and avoid smoke-filled places. First and second-hand smoke significantly impairs your immune system. It also dries out your nasal passages and paralyzes cilia, the small hairs in your nose and lungs that help keep out viruses.

Once you contract the flu, do not expect to function normally. You should stay home and definitely not try to attend school or go to work. You will put yourself at risk of further complications, and also help to spread the flu throughout your school and work. Your best options are to stay home, drink lots of fluids, water or tea is best. try to keep your fever below 101 with tylenol or ibuprofen, if you are not allergic or sensitive to the medications. Antibiotics are not effective against the flu because the flu is caused by a virus. There is a prescription drug called Tamiflu, that if started within 12-24 hours of flu symptoms, can decrease the length and severity of the flu by a few days.

My personal favorite for preventing Influenza is a combination of the flu vaccine and adequate Vitamin D. My goal is to get Vitamin D3 levels to an optimal range of between 50-70. If you have not yet had your levels checked, please call our office. Here are a few recommended links to articles on how Vitamin D helps to prevent contracting and possibly lessening the duration of Influenza.

Finally, we never know when the flu will hit, yet it almost always hits in the winter months. Interestingly, our winter is the southern hemispheres summer. When we are battling the flu, our southern hemisphere neighbors are enjoying the sunshine and good health. Makes you think more about the Sunshine-Vitamin D link and flu prevention theory.

This year, Google launched a flu symptom tracker called Google Flu Trends that it hopes will predict and show when the flu is hitting. It will be interesting to see if they can spot Flu cases before the traditional medical establishment.
Steven Horvitz, D.O.
Board Certified Family Medicine
Founder of The Institute for Medical Wellness

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