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No vaccine for you? Here's how to dodge the flu

Posted - Oct. 22, 2004 at 1:40 p.m.



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Can't get a flu shot? Then educate and protect yourself. Chances are, you'll a void picking up someone else's flu germs and stay healthy.

With the flu season under way, we called on experts for ways to help you stay healthy this flu season. Here's what you need to know:

HOW FLU BUGS SPREAD

Flu viruses come in various types, or strains, and some years they're stronger than others. They keep changing, too. Just when the experts think they know how to stop them, they change, or mutate, again.

Dr. Howard Markel, a University of Michigan professor and author of the new book "How Germs Travel " (Pantheon , $25), says it's like preparing to play a U-M football team wearing maize- and-blue uniforms in the first half of a game, only to come back after half time and see a team in green and white. Predicting which strain of flu will emerge each year is a guessing game made by educated guessers. They do their best. But sometimes, they're wrong, and the vaccine doesn't match the strain.

Flu germs spread when a person with the flu coughs into the air, sneezes or touches something with germy hands. The germs don't live long on toilet seats, money or mail. But in a closed room or on an airplane, particularly if the trip lasts more than 3 hours, you should avoid anyone coughing or sneezing into the air.

If you are a traveler and really worried, pay attention to the Web site www.cdc.gov, to see which areas of the country are hardest hit by flu and consider delaying trips there if you can. If you're really worried, take a page from last year's lessons on SARS prevention and consider wearing an N-95 mask, the federally designated mouth and nose defense system. Don't even think about traveling if you have the flu.

If you want to really be careful, open doors or hold straps on buses with a paper towel. If people offer to shake your hand, politely say: "Sorry, I'm not shaking hands right now. Hope you understand."

Some people may not understand or think you are taking this flu stuff a bit too seriously, but it's your health you are protecting.

FIRST, DO NO HARM

If you are sick, please, please, stay home from work or school and refrain from doing errands until you have stopped coughing and you no longer have a fever.

Don't know if what you have is a cold or the flu? Flu takes a big whack out of you and typically is accompanied by a headache and a fever above 101 degrees. You won't be able to climb out of bed. You probably will be unable to work from home for several days. Keep your distance from everyone else until your coughing stops. Cough into your sleeve or a tissue, not into your hands, and throw away the tissue immediately.

FLU KNOW-HOW

Wash your hands vigorously and often with plain old soap and warm water or, if you prefer, an alcohol-based hand sanitizing product. Wash as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Experts say microbial hand washes are a waste of money.

Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose, where flu bugs like to gather. Eat properly. Get a good night's sleep. Exercise. Stay strong.

If you get the flu, go to your doctor immediately to get an anti viral medicine, which should be taken during the first 2 days you experience flu symptoms. These drugs, known under such brand and generic names as Flumadine, rimantadine, Relenza and Tamiflu, come in pill, syrup and orally inhaled forms. Although they usually lessen the duration and severity of the flu, they can cause harsh side effects, including nervousness, anxiety, nausea, nasal infections, headaches and dizziness. They range in price from $35 to $86 for a typical course and may not be covered by insurance.

HERBAL OPTIONS

There's debate about whether vitamins and herbal products help prevent the flu. The Internet offers a mother lode of products, including garlic capsules and bath solutions like tea tree oil, to stimulate the immune system. Zinc tablets may work, some doctors say. Experts disagree vehemently about vitamin C, however. Just remember this: Too much itamin C is not good for you. It's an acid that can irritate your stomach.

A better bet is to pack your diet with foods rich in vitamin C. Ann Arbor registered dietitian Diana Dyer suggests oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, berries, carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet pepper, tomatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts. She also recommends foods high in vitamin E, including avocados, nuts, seeds and wheat germ, as well as tuna, herring, mackerel and other fatty fishes, to help make white blood cells that fight infection.

Deep breathing and massage may boost the immune system. Sit or lie with your spine straight and take 10 deep breaths each hour.

Sources: Dr. James Ekenrode, www.windercare.com; Diana Dyer, www.cancerrd.com; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov

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(c) 2004, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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