Fighting the Flu

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Influenza, better known as the ‘flu’, is caused by a group of viruses, which are spread by small droplets of fluid, coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. These droplets can travel through the air for up to a meter, and infect anyone who breathes them in.  The flu virus can also be spread if an infected person touches his or her nose or mouth, and then touches someone else. Likewise, if an infected person touches a surface such as a door handle with unwashed hands, the virus may be transmitted to another person touches the same surface.

It is possible to catch flu at any time of year, however, it is much more common in winter, when it can reach epidemic proportions. In fact, recent research from the US has finally proven what many have long believed: that the human immune system is weaker in cooler temperatures, which allows certain viruses to thrive.

Many people believe that influenza is a severe form of the common cold, but it is actually caused by a different group of viruses. It generally starts with chills, followed by a high fever, extreme fatigue, and aches and pains. These symptoms may be accompanied by a sore throat, cough, and nausea. Most people who get a genuine flu feel very ill indeed, and are generally unable to get out of bed for several days.

The symptoms usually appear two to three days after exposure to the virus, and subside after a week or so, although the cough and feeling of tiredness may persist for much longer. In elderly people, pregnant women, and individuals with lung problems or weakened immune systems, catching the flu can be much more serious due to the increased likelihood of developing complications such as pneumonia.

Unfortunately, antibiotics are not effective in the treatment of flu, since it is caused by a virus rather than by bacteria. However, as with most things, prevention is better than cure. Washing your hands frequently with ordinary soap and water, and keeping surfaces such as door handles, telephones and computer keyboards clean helps to minimize exposure to the virus. Always use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and put it in the bin straight away. Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf while out in cold weather, not just to prevent you inhaling droplets of fluid from infected people, but also to help prevent the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth from getting cold, which increases the likelihood of the virus bypassing the immune system’s first defense.

There is a vaccine available, which usually helps to reduce the risk of developing flu, especially in elderly people and those with lowered immunity. However, because the flu may be caused by any one of a number of different viruses, and because these viruses frequently mutate to form new strains, it is very difficult to predict which strain will be predominant.

Last week the HSE announced that the particular strain of flu virus which is responsible for this year’s flu outbreak, is not the one that was predicted, and therefore the flu vaccine which is currently being offered does not provide protection against the type of flu which is circulating at the moment.

Fortunately however, there are many safe and effective ways to boost your immune system and thereby help to minimize the risk of catching the flu. Essential nutrients for a healthy immune system include selenium and zinc (both of which are found in Brazil nuts).  Vitamin C is also important for resistance against infection and is found in combination with immune-boosting flavonoids in fruit and vegetables, particularly coloured varieties such as blueberries, oranges and broccoli.

One of the best herbs for enhancing immune function is Echinacea. It has an excellent reputation for helping both children and adults to resist infection. Elderberries, which are rich in vitamins A and C and bioflavonoids, are also a wonderful tonic for the immune system and they have a specific antiviral action, which helps to prevent colds, flu and other viral illnesses.

A number of scientific studies have shown that elderberries stimulate the immune system and are active against various different strains of the flu virus. In controlled clinical trials that compared elderberry extract with placebo in the treatment of influenza, patients taking the elderberry extract had significant improvements in their symptoms within two-three days. On average, the flu symptoms lasted about half as long in those taking elderberry extract compared with those taking the placebo

The most damaging factors for the immune system are poor diet, stress, and lack of sleep.  Saturated fats, sugar, chemical food additives and caffeine all stress the immune system. It is important to get enough exercise during the winter months, but it is equally important to get enough rest and sleep.

If you are unfortunate enough to catch the flu, make sure you keep warm, get plenty of rest, and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Your local medical herbalist can provide an individually tailored blend of herbs to improve immune function, help fight the infection and provide symptomatic relief.

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