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Stop the seasonal flu in its tracks

by Doris Penner

The arrival of winter brings snow and cold temperatures—and like clockwork, the ‘flu. In fall, health authorities make people aware that “flu season” is approaching, and vulnerable citizens (seniors, young children and healthcare workers) are encouraged to avail themselves of a vaccine to help ward off illness. Besides getting a vaccination, what can the population—in reality all of us are vulnerable—do to weather the flu season?  How can we mitigate the risks of contracting influenza and suffering through conditions such as fever and fatigue it inevitably brings with it?

Influenza is an infectious disease caused by any one of a hundred viruses that attacks the respiratory system. This means in addition to fever and muscle aches, there is usually a sore throat, coughing, runny nose and headaches. Typically, influenza is transmitted through the air when someone coughs or sneezes, releasing tiny aerosols that contain the virus. An individual may contract the virus by breathing in the aerosols, or touching surfaces where they have landed and bringing them up to nose and mouth. This explains in part at least why, in winter when people spend great periods of time in confined spaces with other people, there is an increased incidence of flu cases.

Inactivate the virus

Thus one can immediately see several ways to lower risks of spreading the flu virus. Frequent hand washing with soap which helps inactivate the virus will reduce the risk of infection as will the wiping of surfaces with a disinfectant. It is important as well for people to cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

While it is true that even medical experts can’t always predict which virus will rear its ugly head in any particular year, they are all transmitted in similar ways, and so taking general precautions will be effective. Generally, there is no cause for undue alarm even when we hear of cases of H1N1, for example, since there are a few cases every year mixed in with the rest. A pandemic of any strain of flu (affecting a large part of the population) happens very seldom—there were only three flu pandemics over the entire 20th century, for example.

Likely the most important way to lower our risk of contracting an infectious disease is by a conscious effort to keep our bodies healthy and our immune system strong. This is achieved by a nutritious diet highlighting fruits and vegetables, low-fat protein (fish, eggs and lentils), fibre (whole grains) and low-fat milk products, and keeping active and fit.

Boost natural defences

At times you may feel you need a little boost to strengthen your body’s natural defences in addition to eating a wholesome balanced diet. There are a few herbal products that could be suggested. Many herbs not only add flavour to food, they also have medicinal properties that are especially effective when distilled into extracts and tablets.

One of note is elderberry syrup which is a concentrate prepared from the wild-grown juice of the purple elderberry with the addition of pressed Echinacea, vitamin C and acerola powder (the latter two ingredients are powerful antioxidants). The berry provides a valuable mix of flavonoids which appear to stimulate an immune response to support the upper respiratory tract, thus maintaining a healthy breathing passage.

Oregano is a source of nutrients such as vitamins K and E, iron, calcium and manganese as well as dietary antioxidants. However, few of us eat enough of the herb in our dishes to make an appreciable difference. When oil is pressed from the wild Origanum vulgare—one of 40 types of oregano—it contains several concentrated components that can make a difference. These are compounds such as carvacrol and thymol which have shown to have strong antibacterial properties, warding off harmful microbes in the body. This has been especially noted in the respiratory and digestive tracts. A few drops of the oil can be added to drinks or foods; it is also available in softgel (pill) form.

It should be noted products such as elderberry syrup and oil of oregano are supplements and do not take the place of medication your physician might prescribe. It should be stated that it is dangerous for individuals to ingest large amounts of herbs on their own—elderberry stems, bark and leaves, for example are toxic. The supplements are absolutely safe when used as prescribed.