Julia Dosik BS, MPH
It’s that time of year again! The congestion, sore throat, coughing (oh the coughing!), head and muscle aches, fatigue, and the list goes on. Not only does the flu cause missed days from work and school, it is all-around draining for its victims. In addition to lowered productivity from these missed days, the flu most commonly affects people around the holidays which contributes to less time spent with loved ones. But as debilitating as the flu can be, there is hope!
Getting Through Cold and Flu Season Months
Taking steps to help guard yourself from the flu can be very effective. Examples of such steps are vaccination and building up your immune system by taking powerful nutrients. Read on to educate yourself on the flu virus and nutraceutical approaches to help keep this nasty virus at bay.
What is the flu?
The flu is a common respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. Influenza viruses can be classified as type A, B, or C, with numerous subtypes. Human influenza A and B viruses are the ones known to cause seasonal outbreaks. The flu infects the tissues of the nose, throat, and lungs. Although it can resolve on its own, it may progress to severe problems such as pneumonia, especially in the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. The various forms of the flu can be very debilitating when they strike, which is why it’s so important to proactively take proper care of yourself.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Unlike the common cold which has a gradual buildup of symptoms, flu symptoms often develop suddenly. Common symptoms include1:
- Sore throat
- Runny/stuffed nose
- Muscle, body, and headaches
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more often in children than in adults)
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is very important to see your doctor immediately to start treatment right away. The faster anti-viral medications (such as Tamiflu®) are started, the better your chances of lessening the amount of days you are sick. In fact, doctors recommend taking anti-viral medication within 48 hours of symptom onset.
When is the flu contagious?
The flu virus is continually mutating, wreaking havoc on healthy cells in the body. When a person is infected with the flu virus, they are contagious starting 1 day BEFORE symptoms develop and up to 5-7 days AFTER becoming sick. The most contagious time is within the first 4 days of illness.2 The tricky aspect about the flu is that people can transmit the illness to others before their symptoms even begin. Therefore, it is VITAL to always follow proper hand washing hygiene, which is: lather soap on the inside and backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing.
How does the flu spread?
Now that we know the flu virus causes a person to be very contagious within the first 4 days of illness, how does that person spread the flu to others? The flu virus is spread from person to person mainly by droplets made when the infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks! These droplets can then land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or they can possibly be inhaled into their lungs. Less often, a person may get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. Therefore, it is very important to make sure you ALWAYS sneeze or cough into a tissue or the inside crease of your elbow and then immediately wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, following the steps indicated above. Even if you are not sick you should still try and refrain from coughing straight into the air as you never know if the flu virus could be lingering, especially during flu season.
When is flu season?
Although the flu virus can make you sick at any time during the year, flu season generally peaks in the fall and winter months. Flu season usually starts in October and peaks between December and February; however, it can last until May!3 It is advisable to get the flu vaccine before the end of October since the vaccine requires 2 weeks before it provides protection. Although, getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial.4
Can vitamins help with flu?
Although getting the flu shot is the primary form of prevention against the full-on flu, there are natural approaches to strengthening the immune system which may help thwart the virus from infecting your healthy cells. Strengthening your immune system with daily supplementation of vitamin D, probiotics, and zinc may help lessen some of the symptoms and help the body recover faster.
Studies show that vitamin D plays a very important role in regulating the human immune system and may even reduce the risk of certain viral and bacterial infections.9-10 Zinc is required for many metabolic processes in the body and it also plays an integral role in maintaining a healthy and strong immune system.11 In addition to vitamin D and zinc, probiotics (or “good bacteria”) offer powerful immune system protection. Although most people correlate probiotics with digestive health, it’s important to note that most of the immune system resides in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Therefore, consistently supplementing with probiotics helps activate the body’s own immune response. Probiotics also help restore the balance of good bacteria in your GI tract, which can help strengthen its ability to interact favorably with your immune system.12 In fact, several probiotic strains have been clinically studied to help protect the delicate tissue of the GI tract, which in effect can help thwart the flu virus from replicating in the body.13 These strains include:
- B. lactis BS01;
- L. plantarum LP01
- L. plantarum LP02
- L. rhamnosus LR04
- L. rhamnosus LR05
All in all, the combination of a balanced diet, exercise, supplementation with immune strengthening nutrients, consistently washing your hands (especially after coughing, sneezing, and using the bathroom), and getting the flu shot is an excellent path to lead you down a flu-free track these winter months!
About the Author: Julia Dosik, BS, MPH, is a clinical corporate trainer at Life Extension headquarters in South Florida. She holds a Bachelor of Science in biology and psychology as well as a Master of Public Health specializing in health education. Julia utilizes a mix of in-person, virtual and written training to educate employees and consumers on how the human body functions and the importance of supplementing with science-backed ingredients. It is her deepest belief that high-quality dietary supplements are fundamental to an individual’s physical and mental well-being.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Symptoms & Complications. Accessed 11/18/2019.https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Flu Spreads. Accessed 11/18/2019.https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Flu Season. Accessed 11/18/2019.https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When. Accessed 11/18/2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Misconceptions about Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines. Accessed 11/18/2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/misconceptions.htm
- Wilkinson K, Wei Y, Szwajcer A, et al. Efficacy and safety of high-dose influenza vaccine in elderly adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Vaccine. 2017;35(21):2775-2780.
- Sanchez L, Matsuoka O, Inoue S, et al. Immunogenicity and safety of high-dose quadrivalent influenza vaccine in Japanese adults ≥65 years of age: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2019 Nov 19:1-9.
- Panatto D, Haag M, Lai PL, et al. Enhanced Passive Safety Surveillance (EPSS) confirms an optimal safety profile of the use of MF59® -adjuvanted influenza vaccine in older adults: Results from three consecutive seasons. Influenza Other Respir Viruses. 2019 Oct 16.
- Beard JA, Bearden A, Striker R. Vitamin D and the anti-viral state. J ClinVirol. 2011;50(3):194-200.
- Grant WB, Goldstein M, Mascitelli L. Ample evidence exists from human studies that vitamin D reduces the risk of selected bacterial and viral infections. ExpBiol Med. 2010;235(12):1395-1396.
- Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: a review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev. 2007;12(1):25-48.
- Rauch M, Lynch SV. The potential for probiotic manipulation of the gastrointestinal microbiome. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2012;23(2):192-201.
- Pregliasco F, Anselmi G, Fonte L, et al. A new chance of preventing winter diseases by the administration of synbiotic formulations. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2008;42 Suppl 3 Pt 2:S224-33.