With the 2012-2013 flu season being one of the worst in recent years, there is widespread concern about how the flu should be prevented, treated and managed. The fact is that the same medical guidelines that have applied for preceding flu seasons should be followed closely. There is no ‘cure’ for the flu although antiviral drugs like oseltamivir (branded as Tamiflu) and zanamivir (branded as Relenza) have contributed greatly to reducing the severity and duration of the infection and preventing complications. However, the focus on supportive measures is often forgotten such as strict bed rest, plenty of fluids and a balanced diet.
Despite the media frenzy around previously unseen strains of the influenza virus such as the H1N1 strain that caused the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic and the more recently identified H3N2v virus, most people who are infected will overcome the infection and recover fully. Certain groups of people are considered high risk such as pregnant women, young children, the elderly and any person with a chronic disease particularly where the immune system is weakened. Rightfully so these high risk individuals have to take various precautionary measures. However, for the vast majority of people, the flu is just another 3 day ‘downtime’ that occurs once or twice a year.
Strict Bed Rest and No Exercise
Most of us have heard it time again from our doctor – “no work and strict bed rest”. But all too often we do not take this piece of advice seriously when we have the flu. The fact of the matter is that strict bed rest does not mean that we now have a few days off from work to catch up on shopping and social activities. Strict bed rest means exactly that – staying in bed and resting as well as sleeping as much as possible. The body needs at least a few days of not being taxed further with physical activity while it “battles” the flu virus. Exercising should be strictly avoided while you are down with the flu. All forms of exercise strain the body. While exercise has health benefits in the long run, during the flu it impedes the recovery phase. A few days away from gym or aerobics classes is not going to undermine your otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Plenty of Fluids and Balanced Diet
Most of us live in a mild state of dehydration but do not realize it. If you do not usually consume at least 8 glasses of water, or an equivalent in bottled water daily, then you should at least change this habit when you have the flu. Consuming plenty of fluids when you have the flu will also prevent dehydration as a result of fluid loss from sweating during fevers. Ideally a person should consume oral rehydrating solutions where there is a balanced mix of electrolytes in the fluid. This is the same ORS that is used to prevent dehydration during the stomach flu and other causes of severe diarrhea and profuse vomiting.
You may not feel like eating while you have the flu but do not succumb to the loss of appetite. It is a sure way of having a protracted bout of the flu and possibly even experiencing complications, some of which may even be fatal. If there is any time when you need to eat, and eat well, it is during the flu. Your grandmother’s chicken soup has a host of nutrients from the meat, vegetables and possibly spices. But there is no need to prepare special meals. A balanced diet containing carbohydrates, protein and moderate amounts of fat can be sourced from many meals.
Vitamins and Minerals Supplements
There will always be much debate in the medical community as to whether vitamins and mineral supplements offer any benefit in the treatment and management of the flu. Conflicting evidence neither supports the use of high doses of vitamins and minerals nor is it entirely against it. What can be agreed upon is that supplementation is not harmful in the short term. There is no need to abandon the vitamin C and zinc supplements but it is not a definitive flu treatment or prevention. For many of us balanced nutrition is sufficient and there is no need for supplement. Nevertheless, vitamin and mineral supplements can be beneficial if you have pre-existing nutritional deficiencies.
Vaccination and Antiviral Drugs
Every year a new flu vaccine hits the market usually before or at least in the early days of the flu season. The influenza virus mutates rapidly. Last year’s vaccieGetting vaccinated should be considered essential for high risk individuals – pregnant women, young children and the elderly. Health care personnel and people living with severe chronic illnesses should also consider vaccination. Although the flu vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get the flu, it has found to at least reduce the severity and duration of the flu. With some of the more harsh flu strains making its rounds these days, getting vaccinated should be considered by every person irrespective of their flu risk profile.
Antiviral drugs are one of the most effective treatment options for the flu. While it is not always necessary for the treatment of the flu, these days it is being used more widely. In fact with the current 2012-2013 flu season, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) urges the use of antivirals like oseltamivir to curb flu-related deaths. The elderly are at the greatest risk but antivirals can be used by any person. Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of certain antivirals among children younger than 1 year of age. Although antiviral drugs are effective in treating the flu, it has to be used early once the first symptoms of the flu become evident. It does not preclude other measures like vaccination.
Reduce Stress and Stay Healthy
One of the most effective preventative and treatment measures against the flu is your body’s own immune system. Its effectiveness, however, depends on a host of factors that can affect your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. “Staying healthy” means balanced nutrition, appropriate exercise, sufficient sleep and managing stress. It is not about practicing a healthy lifestyle now and then but staying healthy is an ongoing process that needs to be continued every day of the year. Any type of stress that is prolonged can impair the activity of the immune system. It is therefore not surprising that people who are “stressed” tend to contract infections more frequently than others. Staying stress-free is often not possible in modern life but proper stress management can play an important role in immunity.
Avoid Cigarette Smoking
Not only does cigarette smoking introduce a host of toxic chemicals into the body but it also impairs the immune system, particularly the local immune defenses in the airways. Cigarette smokers are therefore prone to a number of respiratory tract infections. With the flu, cigarette smokers are more likely to develop complications such as secondary bacterial infections of the paranasal sinuses (acute sinusitis), lower airways (acute bronchitis) and lungs (pneumonia). While quitting smoking permanently is the only option, cigarette smokers who do not wish to kick the habit need to minimize smoking while they have the flu. It is not only smokers themselves who are at risk. Those in close contact who inhale secondary smoke are also more likely to suffer with the host of adverse effects attribute to cigarette smoking.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on January 25, 2013