Muscle aches, fevers, chills: influenza can be an unpleasant experience during chilly weather. Chances are many of you have already been feeling the flu’s nasty effects.
The respiratory illness can also be deadly. Michael Kinch, Ph.D., an immunologist and vaccine expert, as well as dean of Sciences and a vice president at Long Island University in New York told Fox News Digital that in an average year, 60,000 people in the United States die from the flu each year.
Kinch said, "While influenza virus can cause a severe disease in all people — regardless of health or age — older and immune-compromised people are particularly susceptible" to it.
Whether you’ve received your flu shot or not, there are key natural steps we can all take to ward off influenza and to protect our loved ones from the virus’s associated fever, cough, achiness, and general unpleasantness.
The flu "is a very specific disease caused by the influenza virus," Dr. Lisa Maragakis, the senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System, said, adding that there can be mild or serious cases.
For one type of the virus, called Influenza A, the "classic" presentation is a sudden onset, Fishman said. People may first have a headache "more in the front of your head or behind your eyes," with other symptoms being a fever of at least 103 degrees, chills, sweats and body aches.
Influenza B is often less severe and resembles the common cold, but there can be more serious cases, he noted.
The flu vaccine "may not be perfect but it’s the best prevention that we have," Dr. Daniel Jernigan, the director of the influenza unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said.
Anyone at least six months old should get vaccinated yearly, the agency advises.
It’s not recommended for people with "severe, life-threatening" egg allergies or those who have previously had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine, Jernigan said.
As for timing? If you can, get vaccinated by the end of October, the CDC says.
"It takes about two weeks after you get your vaccine to get protected," Jernigan explained, noting that most flu seasons typically start in November.
"Generally people should start getting vaccinated now," Fishman said, and that they should do so by Halloween to Thanksgiving.
There are other "more general prevention strategies" people can follow, according to Maragakis. These include frequently washing your hands, coughing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow and avoiding people who appear to be sick.
"If it’s a mild illness, it’s generally self-limited," Maragakis said. If you’re sick, stay home and avoid others, especially babies, pregnant women and the elderly, she advised.
Jernigan encouraged people with the flu to get lots of fluids and nutrients. Antiviral drugs are used when people are hospitalized or have certain underlying medical conditions, he said.
These types of drugs can also be used in less serious cases, according to Fishman. Other flu remedies include getting lots of rest, following a healthy diet and taking Tylenol or Advil, he recommended.
"None of the homeopathic drugs have really been shown to help influenza," he said, noting that you should check with a doctor or a pharmacist to see if "natural" products interfere with other medications.
All flu vaccines in the U.S. — including types for people younger than 65 — are "quadrivalent," which means they guard against four different flu strains.
"While vaccine effectiveness (VE) can vary, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to those used to make flu vaccines," the CDC says online.
The agency collects viruses in the world "and determines how close they are to a virus that goes into the vaccine," Jernigan explained.
1. Wash your hands
One of the most effective and easiest methods of flu prevention is washing your hands. It is something we should all do several times a day, preventative or not, – simply because it’s well-mannered. While we should be washing our hands after using the restroom, we should also do so after using equipment at the gym, being on public transportation, shaking someone's hand, and other situations after coming in contact with the public. You can never be too careful, especially during the winter months.
2. Stay hydrated
Staying hydrated is important year around, but it is particularly useful in the winter. It’s easy to forget to drink enough water in the cold weather, as we’re not sweating as much as we do when it’s warm outside. Steadily drinking six to eight glasses of water a day can boost your immune system, keeping your body strong and ready to fight off illnesses.
Like water, exercise has immune-boosting effects. It also enhances circulation, reduces stress, and offers another mode of eliminating toxins through perspiration, according to naturopathic doctor Amy Rothenberg. Of course, take care not to overdo it. If you’re really sick, get plenty of rest and consult a medical professional before engaging in any physical activities.
4. Eat an organic, plant-based diet
Increase the amount of organic fruits and vegetables in your diet, particularly those high in vitamin C like papaya, bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli and kale. To be safe, you can also take a vitamin C supplement. Consult with your doctor on the best vitamin C supplements for your needs.
5. Take vitamin D supplements
Some parts of the US are plagued with gray and gloom during the winter months. Because of this, lots of Americans lack vitamin D, especially toward the end to beginning of the year. You can have your vitamin D levels checked with a simple blood test from your physician to determine whether a vitamin D supplement is necessary. Some doctors on the East Coast recommend vitamin D to their patients regularly. If your levels are low, consider taking a vitamin D supplement to help prevent not only the flu, but also a host of other health conditions – like cancer and cardiovascular disease – that have been linked to vitamin D deficiency.
6. Take probiotics
Probiotics are "good bacteria" in your gut that have been shown to help fend off colds and the flu. They can rebalance the bacteria we need in our bodies that can be destroyed by antibiotics. Probiotics come in pill form and a typical dosage is in the billions of CF units, but you can also introduce probiotics into your diet through yogurt, miso, tempeh, kimchi, coconut kefir, and sauerkraut.
7. Use Elderberry syrup
Elderberry syrup is not only packed with vitamins A, B, and C, but it also stimulates the immune system, has been shown to prevent colds and the flu, and tastes delicious. You can use elderberry syrups in your tea or top it on your yogurt, oatmeal, or in a smoothie.
8. Use essential oils
Essential oils are restorative, curative, and natural antibacterial agents. They also happen to smell pretty great. Diffuse grade A essential oils throughout your home, or apply them topically to your skin. Apply some oregano oil to your back, chest, and the bottoms of your feet. Aside from being a natural antibiotic, oregano oil also has bacteria-fighting properties and is a powerful antihistamine.
9. Take Omega-3 supplements
Rather than turn to fish oil for your health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, consider going right to the source and using marine phytoplankton instead. It’s where fish get their omega-3, 6 and 9, fatty acids, as well as their vitamin A. You can enjoy its benefits by simply adding 10 to 15 drops into your water or juice.