3 Steps to Outsmarting the Flu

By David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center Director, Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital

Posted on | By David L. Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP

'Tis the season, as the saying goes, for holiday cheer. But your holidays will be a whole lot cheerier if you don’t share them with influenza! So ‘tis the season for flu prevention, too. And on that topic, I’ve got something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue that will help you outsmart the flu this year. Without further ado:

Something Old: Get Vaccinated

Get vaccinated. That really is the best tried-and-true advice there is for preventing influenza. But the road to that conclusion runs anything but straight. Let’s travel it together.

Among the roadblocks, there are, for starters, the numerous conspiracy theorists – highly loquacious on the Internet – who contend not only that flu vaccination is overtly dangerous, but that there is a systematic effort to delude the public about those dangers. Even readers who are not entirely convinced that the CDC is genocidal in its recommendation that everyone over 6 months of age be vaccinated are given pause by such allegations.

One good reason for this hesitation is that for a vaccine to do you any good, you need to get it while feeling fine. This is quite different from, say, an operation that is much more dangerous but easily justified by an obviously broken limb, plugged-up gall bladder, or occluded arteries. It can be hard to talk yourself into rolling up your sleeve and getting jabbed with a needle while feeling healthy (even if you are not particularly worried about a government conspiracy).

The truth, though, is that the influenza vaccine is many, many times safer than the flu itself. That does not mean the flu is a plague, nor that the vaccine is perfectly safe. Nothing in medicine and little in life is perfectly safe. Harm from the flu vaccine is possible, but a highly remote risk. For what it may be worth to make this personal, I readily accept that “risk” every year – for myself, my wife and my children. I put the arms of my loved ones where my mouth is on this topic.

There is some legitimate doubt about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. It is certainly far from perfect, and the elderly, who most need protection, may need two inoculations to get it. Leaving aside some of the subtleties that complicate measuring vaccine effectiveness in real-world settings, and applying even a low-level estimate of overall vaccine effectiveness, routine flu vaccination produces a decisive overall benefit compared to just taking our chances with the flu. 

Another bit of tried-and-true flu prevention is so-called “post-exposure prophylaxis.” This is the use of prescription antiviral drugs to prevent the development of symptoms for those who have been exposed to the flu, but haven’t been vaccinated. This is especially important for those most prone to complications of the flu, such as the elderly and the chronically ill.

Something New: Try Supplements

Flu season coincides with more than the holidays; it coincides with winter. That means shorter days, less sun exposure and declining levels of vitamin D for many of us. Vitamin D is of profound importance to many, perhaps all, body systems, including the immune system.

A low level of the vitamin will not cause the flu, of course, and an adequate level won’t prevent it on its own. But an adequate level will help make you less vulnerable to infection in the first place, and better able to fight if off if you and the flu do meet up.

It’s always best to talk to your doctor about supplements, but as a rule, I recommend boosting vitamin D intake to 2000 IU throughout flu season.

Another bit of new advice is to put Panax ginseng to work for you. This variety of ginseng, native to North America, has been shown to reduce the frequency of the common cold by roughly 30% when taken daily throughout the cold and flu season; the typical dose is 200mg. While flu-fighting potency has not been proven, it stands to reason that the antiviral properties that help fight off colds should help with flu prevention as well.

Something Borrowed: Exercise Can Help

In addition, we can borrow something from the world of exercise and fitness to help fight flu. Some recent research suggests that if you exercise the body part receiving the vaccine – generally the shoulder – you can increase blood flow to the site, and, as a result, enhance your response to the vaccine. In essence, you wind up making more antibodies, which should translate into better protection against the flu.

The idea here is to exercise before you get the flu shot, so the site is “primed.” This exercise can be some calisthenics or a vigorous work around the house. If you feel that burn in your shoulder, it means you’ve stressed the muscle enough to get the potential benefit of enhanced protection against the flu.

A Word of Caution: Something Blue

Well, to put it bluntly, I don’t want this to be you! Blue is the color of cyanosis, a lack of oxygen in the blood. The most common, lethal complication of the flu is pneumonia, leading to respiratory compromise and cyanosis. We have all witnessed firsthand the threat of pandemic flu with the recent circulation of the H1N1 strain. A truly bad flu pandemic warrants a great deal of respect – and every kind of self-defense we can mount.

The flu pandemic of 1918 caused more deaths than World War I and World War II combined! But even garden-variety influenza causes roughly 30,000 deaths each year in the US alone. None of this is cause for panic. All of it is cause to take the threat of flu seriously and to put some good preventive strategies to work for you and your family.

Article written by David L. Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP
Director, Yale University Prevention Research CenterDirector, Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital