It’s time again to ponder the flu immunization. When it comes to flu shots, I take a far more conventional approach than many patients at WholeHealth Chicago expect of a doctor who considers himself alternative/integrative. After reviewing some of the popular online alternative medicine newsletters warning people away from flu shots, it’s my sense that the most frequent piece of advice seems to be “…and here’s MY product you can buy instead.”
I became a major advocate of the flu vaccine in 1974, when there was a flu epidemic and my wife and I forgot to get immunized. Being in health care, I got the flu quickly from one of my patients and brought it home to share. Illness-wise, we look back on that March as the most wretched month of our lives: four solid weeks housebound with fever, headaches, exhaustion, and body aches that seemed to never go away.
We’d awaken in bed wondering if we were still sick before coughing deeply and gasping for breath, muttering “Yep, still sick.” We staggered around the house. Friends left groceries at the front door. It won’t surprise you to know that since 1974, neither of us has ever missed a flu shot. And while we’ve had the occasional light case of flu despite being immunized, we’ve never been that sick again.
Let’s review some of the arguments made by people who choose not to get a flu shot:
- I had the shot and got the flu anyway. This is possible. You may have had your shot too late in the season and thus your immune system didn’t have enough time to make antibodies. Maybe the vaccine didn’t target the exact flu strain that year. But at least with immunization you have a chance at protection.
- I’m allergic to eggs. Very few people have a true allergic reaction to eggs (sudden onset of hives and wheezing). This isn’t the same as not digesting eggs well or being egg-sensitive, which can appear as a positive result on food sensitivity testing.
- I don’t want the mercury. It’s true Thimerosal, which contains 25 micrograms of mercury, is used as a flu vaccine preservative. A microgram is a millionth of a gram, such a minute amount that it’s cleared out by your liver and is harmless. I wrote at length about mercury and the flu shot issue in a Health Tip a few years ago. It includes this personal story:
I clearly remember that my medical group realized we’d been signing one death certificate an hour for three straight days–almost 70 deaths–for nursing home patients dying of flu complications. The victims were mainly older adults whose families, for one reason or another, refused to allow their parents to submit to the “dangers” of a flu shot. I assure you that experiencing this many patients dying before your eyes can alter your perspective about flu immunization.
- I never get a flu shot and I’ve never had the flu. You’ve apparently got an immune system like a long-range missile protection program. Since there’s no government mandate to be immunized, you can continue as-is. Here’s hoping your luck holds.
What about Tamiflu?
I once recommended my patients take the prescription antiviral Tamiflu, but enough research has now been completed to show that the risks of Tamiflu–including nausea, headaches, and mental confusion–and related antiviral Relenza don’t outweigh the benefits.
To this day, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends using Tamiflu during outbreaks, although there have been virtually no studies documenting effectiveness. At very best, Tamiflu reduces the duration of symptoms by anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. However, using Tamiflu does not seem to thwart the spread of flu among family members, prevent complications (like pneumonia), or reduce hospitalizations. When researchers wanted to review the clinical trials conducted by Roche Labs, Tamiflu’s manufacturer, they were denied access to the data. Clearly, this does not inspire confidence in Tamiflu.
Here’s a link discussing the recent problems with Tamiflu.
Preventing and treating the flu
Remember that all strains of the flu virus are airborne, spread by the invisible droplets people shower onto you and nearby surfaces when they cough, sneeze, and touch. As flu season approaches, here are some tips:
- Step away from coughers/sneezers One reason elementary school teachers get frequent colds is that their moist, drippy little charges lovingly cough right into their faces. If you’re at a movie and the person behind you is coughing mightily, change seats. Avoiding crowded spaces like buses, planes, and elevators also helps.
- Wash your hands and don’t touch mucous membranes Viruses also spread from surfaces, including skin, health club equipment, remote controls, and keyboards. If you see someone covering her mouth with her hand when she coughs, it’s best not to shake that hand or use her keyboard, mouse, remote, or StairMaster and then inadvertently rub the mucous membranes of your nose or your eyes with your own hand.
- When you cough, do so into the crook of your arm rather than into your hand. A few years back, billboards throughout Toronto taught their citizenry this helpful technique.
- Clean with isopropyl alcohol Purchase an inexpensive bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol from the drugstore and regularly wipe down remotes, keyboards, laptops, and desks.
- Boost your immune system by taking these two supplements throughout the flu season:
Host Defense, an extraordinarily popular and effective blend of immune-stimulant mushrooms. Clinical mycology is the study of the medical benefits of mushrooms, used for more than 5,000 years to prevent and treat disease. Weighty textbooks and medical journals are devoted to this topic. Host Defense, formulated by well-known mycologist Paul Stamets, is a blend of about 15 immune-boosting mushrooms. Take one capsule twice daily for the rest of the flu season.
Vitamin D. Ideally, you want blood levels of around 40-60 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter). You could ask your doctor to measure your level, but it’s not necessary. The days are getting shorter here in the northern hemisphere and I haven’t seen a full day’s sunlight for a week, so it’s safe to assume your vitamin D is low. We know that low levels of D affect your immune system’s ability to fight anything–from viruses to cancer–so just take 2,000 IU of D daily. There’s no danger of overdose.
- If you feel you’re coming down with any viral respiratory infection, start ViraClear EPs 7630, a homeopathic remedy licensed in the US from one of Europe’s largest nutritional and herbal companies. EPs 7630 is obtained from the roots of the South African pelargonium sidoides plant and in a post-marketing survey of more than 9,000 patients was shown to reduce the severity and duration of a wide variety of viral respiratory illnesses. One published study of 103 patients showed significant symptom improvement using EPs 7360 when compared to placebo. Other useful natural treatments for flu include black elderberry (sold as Sambucol) and the homeopathic Oscillococcinum. Personally, were I coming down with flu, I’d use them.
If we have an epidemic here in Chicago, WholeHealth Chicago patients shouldn’t bother making an office appointment. You’ll just infect everyone around you. Rest at home, push fluids, take ibuprofen, and start Sambucol and/or Oscillococcinum. Expect to feel really crummy for a few days before slowly improving. Keep in touch with your primary doc by e-mail through the Portal System. If after a week you suddenly worsen dramatically (high fever, deep cough), check into an immediate care center or emergency room as you may have developed a bacterial infection like pneumonia, the most common complication of flu.
Oh, and if you need a flu shot, simply call the office (773-296-6700) and schedule a “flu shot only.”
David Edelberg, MD