THE flu season is upon us and it’s going to get nasty. “This is an unpleasant, type-A flu virus, which is considered worse than the type-B virus,” says Professor John Oxford, a top virologist based at the London Queen Mary School of Medicine.
It originated in China’s Fujian province and has already proved itself a force to be reckoned with. “This strain showed it had some punch when several young children died after catching it last winter,” Professor Oxford says.
“The good news is that this year the Fujian strain, along with the Shanghai and New Caledonia strains of influenza, is included in the flu vaccine, so vaccination will afford a more direct form of protection than the jab offered last year.”
So how do you protect yourself – and if you catch it, what do you do?
Is it too late to be immunised?
No. It takes about 10 days for your body to start producing the antibodies to the flu vaccine (possibly even less, advises Professor Oxford, if you have been immunised before) so you will have protection within a fortnight of immunisation.
If you are over 65 or in one of the “at risk” groups, which includes those suffering from asthma, kidney disease, diabetes, auto- immune conditions and heart disease (the jab can be given to babies over six months in the “at risk” groups), you qualify for free immunisation, which should be done through your GP.
The chief medical officer has also recommended, this year, that healthcare workers should be immunised – because they are more likely to come into contact with the disease than others.
For anyone outside these groups, private doctors and health clinics are still offering flu jabs for around Pounds 30 (try Samedaydoctor, W1, on 020 7935 0113 or Doctor Today, NW3, on 020 7433 1444).
Boots no longer offers flu jabs.
Is it really worth bothering with a flu jab?
While flu can lead to complications (such as bronchitis or secondary bacterial pneumonia) which can result in death for people in the “at risk” groups, it is unpleasant but not usually lifethreatening for anyone in normal health.
It may well be worth having the jab, however: in years like this where there is a good match between the vaccine and the strain of flu in circulation, flu jabs are 70-80 per cent effective, and if you do catch flu after the jab, it is likely to be much milder than if you hadn’t had the injection.
How else can I avoid catching flu?
It’s not easy, once other people around you have caught it. The flu virus is highly contagious and is easily passed on by breathing in tiny droplets of moisture from the breath of infected people.
Flu takes two or three days to incubate, and a sufferer can pass the virus on the day before their symptoms appear.
“Personal hygiene is very important in stopping the spread of flu,” says Professor Oxford. “People are very slapdash about hygiene. Cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough and wash your hands frequently.”
Keep your immune system strong and you’ll stand a better chance of beating off bugs. Eat properly, as poor nutrition is the main cause of a weakened immune system. Have plenty of fruit containing vitamin C (blueberries and kiwi fruit are good choices) both to boost immunity and help you recover if you fall ill, as the body’s levels of vitamin C tumble when you have a virus.
There are also additional steps that can be taken to help defend yourself against flu.
Cold showers: Scientific studies have now backed up what naturopaths have been saying for years – that taking a cold shower every day can greatly improve your immunity to viruses. The theory goes that the shock of the cold water stimulates the body into warming itself up and raising its core temperature – which destroys cold and flu viruses. If you are suffering from flu, taking a cold shower may seem like purgatory but the same study concluded that it can shorten the duration of an infection, too.
Acupuncture: This can improve the body’s ability to resist infection and works best if done regularly. The treatment works through the nervous system and energy channels of the body and has been shown to cause the brain to release endorphins and enkephalins (natural pain killers) as well as boosting the immune system.
Zinc: Eat foods containing zinc – it is the main nutrient protecting the immune system, and helps white blood cells resist infection. Foods which contain zinc include eggs, wholegrain bread and cereals, nuts, seafood, meat and oysters.
Hemp seed: This appears to have a role in preventing upper- respiratory-tract infections; Finnish researchers found that people who took two tablespoons of hemp seed oil a day for dry skin had also suffered less from flu and colds.
Good Oil, a hemp seed oil, can be found at Waitrose for Pounds 6.99 a bottle.
What about the new anti-flu drugs?
There has been an increasing focus on antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) which are known as NIs or neuraminidase inhibitors (neuraminidase is the mushroom spike that sits on the outside of the flu virus, and these drugs block its function). They can be used both therapeutically (to help cure flu) or prophylactically (to prevent the disease developing).
The drugs are only available through GPs for people in the “at risk” groups.
Also, they need to be taken within 36 hours of the symptoms of flu developing, so if you think you may need them, move fast at the first signs.
What else can I do if I get flu?
Flu is a virus, so it will have to run its course and there is little you can do to make your body deal with it more swiftly.
However, the symptoms can be treated.
Painkillers: Over-the-counter medicines containing paracetamol (or, for adults, aspirin) will help to relieve symptoms.
Decongestants: Pseudoephedrine is one of the most effective decongestant ingredients available in over-the-counter medicines and usually comes in a ” nondrowsy” version. For something which is easy to take, try Boots Direct Dose cold-and-flu granules (Pounds 4.15 for 10 sachets).
For pregnant women who are avoiding drug treatments, seawater- based nasal sprays such as Sterimar can relieve blocked and stuffy noses (Pounds 5.99 at Boots).
Water: Drinking lots is vital, as keeping your body hydrated helps it to deal with illness better by removing the toxins and byproducts of the viruses. If you are suffering from a high fever which is making you sweat, it is important to keep drinking. If plain cold water is unappealing, try ginger tea or herb teas sweetened with honey; as a treat for ill children, try offering hot, well-diluted Ribena.
Garlic: This has strong antiviral properties thanks to an ingredient called allicin; if you don’t fancy eating garlic as it is, try Health Perception Allimax supplement which contains rapidly absorbed allicin powder (which means it shouldn’t make you smell strongly of garlic). Pounds 6.99 for 30 capsules; call 01252 861454 to order.
Steam inhalers: These cost about Pounds 10 at chemists and can relieve congestion in the head and sinuses.
Honey: It has been long feted in folkmedicine for its curative properties, and Active Manuka Honey from New Zealand is laboratory- tested to ensure a particularly high antibacterial action. It costs Pounds 13.99 for a 500g jar (plus Pounds 2 pp) from Nature’s Nectar, 01252 330 850.
Make it into a natural cough medicine by boiling a lemon for 10 minutes and extracting the juice. Put the juice in a glass with two tablespoonfuls of glycerine, and fill the glass up with honey.
Take a teaspoonful at a time.
Essential-oil patches. The Naturopatch is a new idea: a three- inch-diameter, stickon patch impregnated with a blend of essential oils, which is applied to the body for 48 hours, where it releases its healing vapours; for colds and flu try Eucalyptus, Pounds 14.95 for a tin of 15 patches; call 01737 819 883 to order.
FACTS ABOUT THE VIRUS
How can I tell the difference between flu and a cold?
Many people confuse the symptoms of flu with those of a bad cold. It’s an old joke that women catch colds and men get flu, but as anyone who has ever had flu can tell you, it is far worse than a bad cold.
As well as having a sore throat, a runny nose and possibly a cough, flu will make you feel achey and shivery, while running a high fever.
The symptoms may also come on alarmingly fast, while a cold tends to creep up on you. As a general guide, if you have a cold, you will feel under the weather for a week. If you have flu, you will feel knocked out for a week and your body will take up to three weeks to recover.
Why do we get flu in winter, rather than summer?
“We don’t really know,” says Professor Oxford. “Flu is a curious and unique virus; at any time of the year, it is striking somewhere in the globe. During our summer, it is striking in Australia, though in some equatorial countries it strikes all year round.
Many respiratory viruses are seasonal, and winterrelated – perhaps in part due to our social habits.
We spend more time indoors in winter, close to other people. But flu doesn’t disappear in the summer. It trickles along all year round, but there is certainly a great deal more of it in the winter.”