Colds & Flu
Cold or flu?
Everyone has had a cold or flu at least once in their lifetime – usually many times. So you know the symptoms – runny nose, coughing, sore throat, sometimes a fever, headache, and muscle aches. The symptoms of colds and the flu are similar, but the flu is usually more severe, and can progress to more serious conditions such as pneumonia. The onset of the flu is usually quicker than for colds, and the flu can last longer – up to a couple of weeks. Although you can have a fever with a cold, it is uncommon, and when it does occur, it’s usually lower than when you have the flu.
What causes colds & flus
Colds and flus are both caused by viruses. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria – they are made up of strands of DNA or RNA (similar to the DNA that is contained within the nucleus of your cells), with a coating of protein. They have none of the “machinery” that is required for a cell to replicate, so they are able to self-replicate only inside the cells of the host organism.
While it’s true that colds & flus are caused by viruses, it’s only half the story. The other half is you – the “host”. Whenever you get an infection, you have to be susceptible to the infecting agent. The two components involved – the infectious agent, and the host susceptibility – are like the seed and the soil. Without the soil, the seed can’t grow.
What does this mean in practical terms? While you don’t always have control over the virus, you have more control over the host, meaning you and your immune system. You can reduce your contact with the flu virus by staying away from people who are sick, avoiding enclosed spaces shared by many people (like airplanes) if possible, and washing your hands frequently and thoroughly. There’s also a lot you can do to improve your own immune system before you get infected, so if you do come into contact with the flu virus, your body will kill the virus before it causes severe symptoms. Your naturopathic doctor can suggest specific herbs and dietary suggestions to help improve your immune system before the flu season.
Treating colds & flu at home
The best medicine for colds & the flu is your own immune system, which, in most people, is very capable of fighting off the invading virus. Once you’ve been infected, the most important things you can do are to get lots of rest, and drink plenty of fluids. If you are generally healthy and have a good diet, your immune system should be able to take it from there. Staying home from work or school is critical, both to give your body the rest it needs, and to prevent transmission of the flu to your coworkers or classmates (or your kid’s classmates). Other suggestions to boost your immune system while you’re sick include:
- Avoid sugar. Sugar depresses the immune system – so it’s best to avoid sugar, especially while you’re sick. This includes ginger ale and fruit juices – even though fruit juice has Vitamin C, it has too much sugar, so avoid it.
- Vitamin C – take 500-1,000 mg every few hours. (Vitamin C may cause diarrhea in high doses, so if this is happening to you, reduce the dose or take it less frequently.)
- Zinc – take a zinc lozenge several times a day when you’re sick. Typically zinc lozenges have 5mg to 20mg or more. In some people, Zinc causes stomach upset, so use a lower dose if this happens to you, and don’t take more than one lozenge per day on an ongoing basis.
- “Warming Socks” treatment – this treatment can be done before bed to stimulate the immune system. Read more about this treatment here:http://bastyrcenter.org/content/view/197/
When to call the doctor
You don’t normally need to see a doctor for a cold OR for the flu. Your own body’s chemistry is a natural pharmacy! Rest, fluids, and the suggestions above will almost always help you get well as quickly as possible. If you have a flu that is severe or not getting better, call your doctor to have them help you decide whether a trip to the doctor’s office is necessary. Your doctor may recommend additional treatments – herbs, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, or prescription antiviral medication – that will improve your symptoms and help you get better.
Should you get the flu vaccine?
Before you decide to get the flu vaccine, get informed. Getting the flu vaccine each year may reduce your risk of contracting the flu and may reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do get the flu. The CDC used to recommend the flu vaccine for healthcare workers as well as those at high risk of influenza complications – such as the elderly, pregnant women, children under 6 months old, and those with chronic medical conditions. The CDC has changed their guidelines for the 2010-2011 flu season, and now recommends that everyone get the seasonal flu vaccine. However, there are side effects to the flu vaccine (mild flu symptoms are common, although the vaccine does not cause influenza), and you can still get the flu, even if you’ve had the vaccine.
The practitioners at ECIM do not make recommendations as to which vaccines you should get, but they can help you make an informed decision. If you have questions about the flu vaccine, please call to set up an appointment with a doctor to discuss your unique situation.