By Linda B. White, M.D.
As winter closes in, once again we brace for flu season. This year brings an extra complication: the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. To help you make sense of what’s in the news and be prepared, here’s a quick look at what you need to know about H1N1 and seasonal influenza so you can fight the flu and stay healthy.
Anatomy of a Flu Virus
Influenza viruses are highly contagious. Sneezes and coughs propel the viral droplets into the air or onto hands, and some viruses can survive on surfaces long enough to be contracted by contact with a borrowed pen, a doorknob, etc. Rub your eye, nose, or lips shortly afterward, and presto — you’re sick.
The jury is currently out on exactly how long the flu, and especially H1N1, can survive on surfaces. Reported time periods range from eight hours (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC), to 48 hours (according to the Mayo Clinic). On the other hand, Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, says there’s virtually no evidence to prove that people can catch the influenza virus from germs found on their hands. (Regardless, frequent hand washing is still a good way to reduce the risk of contagious illnesses in general.)
One to three days after exposure, symptoms develop: fatigue, fever (in most cases, but not all), body aches, headache, sore throat, cough — even vomiting or diarrhea. Children may also develop middle ear infections. People with respiratory ailments, such as asthma, are especially vulnerable to complications such as pneumonia. Whereas influenza viruses typically take a greater toll on the very young and the elderly, H1N1 has so far proved worse for children and young adults.
Flu Prevention and Treatment Tips
Focus on these measures to hinder the flu’s spread:
- Sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue, not your hands.
- If you or your child falls ill, stay home. The contagious period stretches from one day before symptoms strike to five to seven days thereafter. The CDC recommends staying home until you’re without fever for 24 hours.
- Many organizations stress that vaccination is an effective precaution to take during flu season, but if you’re not a fan of flu vaccines, you can keep your immune system at its best with a healthy diet, adequate sleep, regular exercise, and relaxation.
- Though they have yet to be tested against H1N1, some herbs have displayed antiviral properties. The list includes ginger, licorice, and garlic (use it raw in food). Two small studies have shown that a proprietary elderberry syrup (Sambucol) can reduce the flu’s severity. Immune-enhancing herbs such as ginseng and eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) have been shown to help prevent viral respiratory infections, including the flu. Astragalus also acts as an immune tonic. Taken in adequate dosages, echinacea and andrographis have been shown to curtail upper respiratory infections.
- Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir), which is derived from Chinese star anise, and Relenza (zanamivir) may make flu symptoms milder. Most experts recommend reserving these to prevent disease in high-risk individuals and to treat those with severe symptoms.
Benefits of Vitamin D
New research published this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine linked low blood levels of vitamin D with a heightened risk of upper respiratory infections, particularly among people with chronic lung conditions. No studies have yet proved that supplementing with vitamin D can prevent the common cold, much less influenza, but because few foods provide vitamin D, many experts recommend supplementation with at least 1,000 IU a day. (Eggs are one of the few foods rich in vitamin D. MOTHER EARTH NEWS tests found that eggs from pastured hens are four to six times richer in vitamin D than conventional eggs.)
When to Get Medical Treatment for the Flu
Seek medical attention if you develop signs of severe illness: difficulty breathing, chest or abdominal pain, dizziness, confusion, or severe vomiting. Signs of a serious problem in children include rapid breathing, poor fluid intake, extreme irritability, and lethargy (the child is difficult to wake and won’t interact).
For more information, visit Flu.gov.