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December 9, 2004

How to Fight the flu Without a flu Shot

Most people in the United States will not be able to receive a flu shot this season due to the shortage of available vaccine. UPMC offers tips on how to take special precautions to avoid getting or spreading the flu.

“It is easier said than done, but staying away from people who have the flu is the best defense against contracting the flu,” said Carlene Muto, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Pitt School of Medicine and the director of infection control at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. “Healthy adults who develop uncomplicated flu should stay home for approximately five days after symptoms hit to prevent infecting others.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends following these tips to help avoid getting the flu:

* Avoid close contact. If you are well, avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others.

* Stay home when you are sick.

* Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your arm or shirtsleeve, not your hand. Be sure to dispose of used tissues in the garbage and wash your hands.

* Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.

* Wash your hands. Everyone, whether sick or not, should regularly wash his or her hands with soap and water or clean hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Those who are sick should wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.

Particularly vulnerable to the flu are the elderly, the very young, those with chronic diseases and those with compromised immune systems. It is recommended that members of these groups should be extra vigilant in following these tips.

Nutrition is the first step

Laura L. Molseed, nutrition manager for UPMC Ambulatory Nutrition Services, said that nutrition is the first step in staying healthy.

“It is just as important in preventing the common cold and flu as it is in preventing heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Eating a balanced diet is the first step in preventing infections,” said Molseed, who also is a coordinator for the UPMC Shadyside dietetic internship program and a field faculty member for Pitt’s coordinated undergraduate program in dietetics.

Molseed offers these tips for eating right:

* Eat defensively. Vitamins C and E, Selenium and many B vitamins are important in fighting infections. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are loaded with these nutrients and others that help keep your immune system strong.

* Eat by color. The nutrients that help bolster your immune system are found in the colorful part of fruits and vegetables – red, orange, green and yellow foods are where you find antioxidants (vitamin C, E and B vitamins) as well as phytochemicals (plant compounds) that help your immune system fight infection.

* Think “food first.” Food is the best source of any nutrient – loading up on vitamin C tablets for a few months likely won’t be enough to ward off a virus. Nutrients from food are better absorbed than nutrients in vitamin pills. Take a multivitamin as a supplement to your daily diet.

When to see the doctor

According to Lawrence Ellis, professor of medicine at Pitt’s medical school and co-medical director of UPMC Downtown, says that in most cases people do not need to visit their doctor when they have the flu.

“There’s an old adage that says when you call the doctor to say you think you have the flu, you don’t, because if you did you wouldn’t even feel like being on the telephone in the first place,” he said.

“When you have the flu there is an acute onset of symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches and headache and these begin to subside within 48 to 72 hours. What we worry about most are the secondary symptoms, so after that 72-hour period, if a fever reappears or the sputum is yellow or green, then we think about pneumonia and that is when a person should seek medical attention.”

Flu treatment options

People who have the flu may want to discuss treatment options with their doctors. There are four antiviral drugs (amantadine, rimantadine, zanamavir and oseltamivir) approved for treatment of the flu. If taken within two days of getting sick, these drugs can hasten improvement by at least a day. They also can make a person less contagious to others.

A doctor will consider a number of things before making a treatment decision, such as the risk for complications from flu. All of the antiviral drugs are different in terms of who can take them, how they are given, any dosing changes based on age or medical conditions and side effects. It’s important to remember that most healthy people recover from the flu without complications, according to Muto. Antiviral drugs may prevent the flu and are most often used to control flu outbreaks in institutions, such as nursing homes or hospital wards, where people at high risk for complications from flu are in close contact with each other.

Antiviral drugs are effective only against influenza viruses. They will not help the symptoms associated with the common cold or many other flu-like illnesses caused by viruses that circulate in the winter.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 8

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