Sneezing and coughing can spread the viruses that cause the flu and the common cold. With cold and flu season starting, it’s important to take precautions to prevent getting sick. Get a flu shot. | file photo
At a Glance
•Vaccination is the best protection against getting the flu.
•Each year, an estimated 5 to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu.
•The number of deaths from the flu and its complications varies from year to year, ranging from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 deaths annually.
•More than 200 different viruses can cause colds.
•Colds and the flu have some symptoms in common, and both are caused by viruses. However, they are different conditions, and the flu is more dangerous. Colds generally do not cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, or lead to hospitalization; the flu sometimes does
•Zinc taken orally (by mouth) may reduce the length and severity of a cold.
•Taking vitamin C supplements on a regular basis only slightly reduces the length and severity of colds and does not reduce the number of colds people catch.
•Echinacea has not been proven to prevent colds or relieve their symptoms.
•There is weak evidence that probiotics might help to prevent colds.
•Keep in mind that “natural” does not always mean “safe.” Some complementary health products derived from natural sources may interact with medications (prescription or over-the-counter) or other natural products, some may have side effects on their own, and some may be unsafe for people with specific medical problems.
Institutes of Health
Updated: November 25, 2012 11:37AM
It’s time to start being a little more cautious. We’re entering virus season, where every cough and sneeze encountered in the grocery store aisle, each door knob we grab, every finger we place near our eyes, noses and mouths has the potential to induce misery.
“We’re starting to see early reports that it’s here,” Will County Health Department spokesman Vic Reato said of influenza, or the flu. “We’re seeing the initial sparks that will result in flu in larger numbers.”
But the good news is there are several things you can do to boost your immune systems for when you do inevitably encounter one of the troublesome bugs that will come your way this season.
The big one, Reato said, is to get the flu shot.
“This is the ideal time,” he said. “It takes two to three weeks to build up the immunity after receiving the flu shot, and if you get it now, it will be just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday when the potential exists for travelers to bring their viruses with them when they visit.”
Our antibodies against the flu stay with us for nine to ten months, Reato said, plenty of time to get us through the virus peak in January and February.
He didn’t have any predictions about this year’s flu season. It’s easy to miss the mark with those, he said. Last year was not a bad year for the flu, and experts think the reason is because the components in the vaccine were a very good match for the actual strains that went around.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months and older get the flu shot. They especially urge those who have or are around people with asthma, diabetes and chronic lung conditions get the vaccine. There is no danger of getting the flu from the shot.
Certain populations should ask their physician before getting the vaccine, however, including people who are sick at the time, allergic to eggs, have had Guillain-Barre Syndrome or have had a reaction to a vaccine in the past.
For those who do not like shots, a nasal mist vaccine is available. The nasal spray does contain live virus.
Keeping up your immune system is also a good idea during the season, and that includes getting enough vitamin D. A study in the April 2012 Journal of Leukocyte Biology found that low levels of vitamin D are related to a deficiency in immune defenses that protect people from infections and autoimmune diseases. Another study found that the vitamin halved the incidence of colds in vitamin D-deficient schoolchildren.
But a recent Journal of the American Medical Association article suggested the vitamin did not ward off upper respiratory tract infections.
“Over the years,” Reato said, “vitamin D has been associated with a whole lot of positive things, including roles in helping alleviate conditions such as COPD, cancer and autoimmune disease. ... It may also play a role in decreasing the incidence of influenza. I prefer to take a multi-vitamin approach, but certainly there’s no harm in taking vitamin D.”
Avoiding exposure to viruses is another highly effective way to stay healthy this season.
“You should restrict contact with people you know are sick,” Reato said, “and if you are sick, stay home so you won’t spread it to other people.”
Reato also suggests avoiding crowded places during cold and flu season.
“Mathematically, you increase your contact with viruses when you’re in a crowded place,” he said. “The more people who are around you, the greater your chance of picking up a virus and getting sick.”
He also reminds everyone to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing; don’t touch the eyes, nose and mouth; and make an effort not to touch surfaces that a lot of others have touched, such as pens and pencils, counters, ATM machines and menus.
Hand sanitizers are a greatway to make hands clean after touching such surfaces, he said, and vigorously washing hands will also do the trick.