The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can You Protect Yourself from the Flu?

Strengthen your immune system and stay away from sick people as much as you can if you want to protect yourself from the flu this winter.

It’s that time of year. Colds, coughs and even the flu are right around the corner. What will you do to protect yourself from the flu and keep from coming down with something nasty this winter?

Practicing Cough Etiquette to Protect Yourself from the Flu:

Chances are good that your mother taught you it’s polite to cover your mouth when you cough. How sound was that advice?

Public health officials call this cough etiquette. Covering a cough is frequently recommended to stop the spread of respiratory infections. Unfortunately, a study of how far droplets actually travel after a cough showed that covering the cough with hands or even an elbow did not eliminate the droplets (BMC Public Health, Sept. 8, 2013). The authors found that most of the cough droplets were smaller than one micron in size. This would allow them to easily penetrate into bystanders’ lungs.

They conclude:

“All the assessed cough etiquette maneuvers have the potential to permit direct, indirect and/or airborne transmission of respiratory infections.”

They also note that covering a cough with your hand instills “a false sense of security.”

Will Face Masks Help?

So, what can you do to protect yourself from the flu? Face masks are controversial. The authors of the cough study found that even surgical masks allow small droplets through into the air where they can infect others. However, a meta-analysis found that the data from clinical trials shows that surgical masks and respirators prevent influenza-like illness (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 13, 2017).

Most people assume that viruses are spread primarily by coughing and sneezing. Research shows, however, that people spread infectious viruses simply by breathing (PNAS, Jan. 30, 2018).

Can You Protect Yourself from the Flu by Washing Your Hands?

Another route of transmission is contamination of the hands. Viruses can persist on surfaces like doorknobs, elevator buttons and gas pump handles. Public health experts urge people to wash their hands frequently. But hand hygiene alone does not appear to prevent the spread of influenza (Epidemiology and Infection, May, 2014). In this study a combination of surgical masks and frequent hand washing worked better than either measure alone to reduce infections.

Stay Home When You Feel Sick:

The best way to prevent the spread of colds and influenza is to stay home when you suspect you might be coming down with a bug. The CDC recommends that people with symptoms like fever, cough and muscle aches avoid other people until at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. The trouble with this sensible recommendation is that many hourly employees don’t have any sick leave. If they don’t show up for work, sick or not, they don’t get paid. They may even lose their jobs. In the interests of public health, American employers should re-think that policy.

Strengthen Your Immune System:

Finally, it makes sense to bolster your immune system. That means getting a good night’s sleep (Journal of Immunology Research, online Aug. 31, 2015). Regular exercise may also help you protect yourself against the flu. Mice allowed to exercise respond better to influenza vaccinations (PLoS One, June 25, 2015). The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu shot. This year the flu vaccine is quite similar but not identical to the vaccine used last year (Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, Oct. 22, 2018).

Vitamin D should also be maintained at optimal levels. Scientists have found that vitamin D helps the lining of the breathing apparatus fight off respiratory viruses (Antiviral Research, Jan. 2017). Immune-boosting herbs such as astragalus, andrographis and ashwagandha may also help you protect yourself from the flu (Alternative Medicine Review, March 2007). So can medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake and reishi. That may be due in part to their vitamin D content (Nutrients, Oct. 13, 2018). In addition, certain mushrooms seem to bolster immune system activity (International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 2018).

Learn More:

You can learn more about protecting yourself and your family from infections this winter through our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.  This Guide also offers tips on managing symptoms with natural approaches including vitamin C, zinc and herbs.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I would expect an article by pharmacists about how to avoid polio to include a recommendation to get the polio vaccine, along with any discussion of possible side effects and their probabilities. Likewise, the flu. I mean, talk about boosting your immune system!

Add me to the list of those who’ve never gotten a flu shot and never gotten the flu (I’m 70 now). But here’s a question: Somebody recently told me that you can “get the flu, not know it, not have symptoms, and yet pass the flu on to somebody else.” Therefore, advised this person, getting the flu shot is essential to protect those around you.
WHAAAAT?! I don’t believe it. Hogwash. Right?

I’m 67 years old and never had a flu shot in my like and never had any problems. I personally know other people who had bad reactions after getting one. It makes no sense to get a flu shot, here’s the big red flag, there’s no liability on it. If the manufacture isn’t proud of it why should I be?

My thoughts exactly! I haven’t had the flu since I stopped getting flu shots 25years ago. I keep my vitamin D levels around 65. I am a big believer in supplements and vitamins, as is my doctor.

At 88 I have never had a flu shot, and I’ve never had the flu. My mother lived to 100 without ever having the flu. One year she had a flu shot and didn’t like it and never had one again. I’ve had all my other immunizations over the years, including shingles and pneumonia

I haven’t had a flu shot in years because for two years in a row, after I got the flu shot, I got oculo-respiratory syndrome. Within 2 hours of getting my flu shot, the symtoms appeared. I had very red eyes, a discharge from my eyes, wheezing, coughing, the sorest throat I’ve ever had, vomiting, and I was so achy that I could not get out of bed. I was sick for several days. The first time I thought it was a coincidence, and that I just got sick, maybe with strep throat. But then the next year, it happened again, right after the shot. So now, I am very afraid to get the shot even though I really would like to get one. Do you know what causes oculorespiratory syndrome? Is it from a preservative in the flu shot? Should I refrain from getting it? I cannot find a lot of answers on the internet. There is information about it, but it is at least 10 years old. Thanks.

I read a strange suggestion a few years ago that often seems to work for me when I feel on the verge of a flu. I put several drops of hydrogen peroxide in one ear, using a medicine dropper, while lying on my side. I let it stay in my ear until it stops fizzing ( 5 to 10 minutes or so). Then I drain the peroxide out of that ear, turn on my other side, and put several drops of hydrogen peroxide in the other ear, and leave until fizzing stops. That’s it. I have no idea how it works, but I have read posts from numerous others who have found this to be useful for them as well.

I read about your cure many years ago and have used it with my children if they get a fever. It works.

Worked in an office of oafs once…based on one or two saying their kid was sick with fever but sent them to school anyway because they had to save their annual leave days for hunting season!

Sambucol Cold and Flu Relief works every time for me. The trick is to begin taking it as soon as you begin to feel like a cold or flu is coming on.

Years ago, I read, (I believe right on the People’s Pharmacy in the actual print newspaper), that to avoid getting sick, do not ever touch your eyes with dirty hands. Something about germs being able to enter the body easily, because no barriers like the nose and mouth have such as acids, etc. I decided to try that, and I can honestly attest that since I have been practicing this for the last fifteen years or so, I have rarely gotten a contagion! Love this column/website. Sound, practical and excellent advice!

A registered nurse tells me she has begun taking Colloidal Silver to help her immune system and help with a bad tooth ache, she had no time to get to a dentist with her massive work load.

What is PP feelings on Colloidal Silver? I read about it online.

Chicken soup is a remarkable treatment but, since 70% of the immune system is in the gut microbiome, it should be sustained through the consumption of a high fiber diet coupled with fermented foods.

I ve been always under the impression that I should NOT get a flu shot. What are your thoughts? I am 74 and have not had one. But I do see people who get them and get sick. Thank heavens I’ve got a natural osteopathic doc. Thx

One terrific berry (the elderberry) is commonly thought to be anti-viral. But, unfortunately, most elderberry concoctions sold in health food stores are full of added sugars. Check out where one can find Elderberry Apple Shots (a syrup made of elderberries and apples only, with no added sugars).

I checked out the website you provided and found it it’s: Thanks for the information.

I’ve been using a homeopathic remedy by Boiron for years whenever I’m feeling flu-ishy, and I’ve not had the flu in several years. It’s called Oscillococcinium. Do NOT ask me to pronounce it, but most health food stores carry it.

Last February 2018, I got the flu, and it was the worst I can ever remember. I had symptoms for about 4 weeks, and I was sick! Who knows how I got it. And, I am careful about washing my hands, but a lot of people aren’t. I did not get a flu shot (I’ve never been consistent), but I did get one for pneumonia. This year I made sure to get both, and because I’m 66, I got a higher dose (I believe) of the flu vaccine. To my surprise, I was not feeling well for about 3 days, the first night and following day were the worst.

I read that that can be a side effect, and now I’m wondering about the dosage I got. I tried to find information on it, and it’s not clear if it actually keeps older people safer from the flu. I hope you’ll address this at some point.

Hi there! All good stuff, and a good reminder. I was interested to notice that you didn’t mention the flu vaccine. I know sometimes it’s more effective than other years, but it’s generally understood to be a good public health measure for flu prevention, don’t you agree?

Two different health professionals have recommended olive leaf extract, which I’ve been taking now for several years. I recently went through a traumatic experience – lost my husband about 3 months ago. I’ve been taking a lot of olive leaf extract and have not gotten sick. It seems worth a try, as it is inexpensive.

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