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With flu vaccine in short supply, behave wisely

Posted - Oct. 12, 2004 at 6:40 a.m.



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Forget your grandfather's remedy --- two teaspoons of sugar in a shot of whiskey. It might give you a little buzz, but it's not going to ward off the flu.

And fight off the urge to munch on ginseng root. Also forget bee balm, cayenne pepper and onion tea.

The only thing that'll prevent the flu is a flu shot.

Period.

But with influenza vaccine in extremely short supply this year, experts are urging everyone --- especially those in the so-called "high-risk" groups --- not to panic. Doctors say there are steps you can take to ward off the bug, by outsmarting it or giving its bite less sting.

For those who are high risk, several prescription drugs could help dodge the flu; for everyone else, it's a matter of common sense and good hygiene practices. For high-risk groups

Dr. Chesley Richards of the division of geriatric medicine at Emory University says the elderly and parents with children between 6 months and 23 months might want to consider what he calls "prophylactic therapy," by which he means taking anti-viral pills that may be powerful enough to prevent the flu.

The trick, he says, is not taking these prescription medications --- amantadine, rimantadine and oseltamivir --- too early.

In a few weeks, or when you start hearing reports about people or friends getting the flu, he says it might be a good idea to call your doctor and see if you should take those drugs.

If they're not strong enough to knock the flu out before you get sick, at least it'll make your illness less severe and less lengthy, Richards says.

The drugs also are effective if taken within the first two weeks of your illness, he says.

"It's important to remember that people don't need that now," he says. "The time to take it is when there are beginning to be cases in the community."

Flu season sometimes starts in October, but typically it peaks in November and December.

Another Emory professor, Dr. Harry Keyserling, head of pediatric infection diseases, stresses that the anti-viral prescription drugs should only be taken by those at high risk and who've not been vaccinated.

Other high-risk groups include those with chronic health conditions, like asthma; pregnant women; nursing home residents; and children on aspirin.

If no flu vaccine becomes available, folks should take the anti-virals until they're feeling better or for a maximum of about six weeks, he says. Dose of common sense

If you are not high risk, you should simply behave wisely: Wash your hands frequently, cover your face when you cough or sneeze and don't eat after others.

Children who are not considered high risk can take anti-virals, but that decision is up to their pediatricians, said Richards.

"Maintain good nutrition, exercise, eat well and get enough sleep," he said.

Dr. David Propp, an Emory internist, also recommends alcohol-based hand cleaners.

Also, go ahead and take vitamin C --- it can't hurt.

There's an over-the-counter herbal remedy called echinacea that's popular and rumored to help fight off some of the pains of the flu, but there's little, if any, scientific evidence it works.

And what if you still get the flu?

Here's a little primer: Symptoms include high fever, a dry cough, irritation in the throat or lungs, shivering, sweating, aching muscles.

Those are similar to symptoms of the common cold, which simply has to be gutted out with the help of lots of sleep and over-the-counter pain medications, cough drops, nasal sprays and any food you can force down.

And plenty of rest.

It will go away within a few days to a week. Dangers of disease

However, when someone has trouble breathing or hallucinates, has seizures or develops a bodywide skin rash, the person should seek immediate medical advice or go to an emergency room.

And remember: The "height of the fever" alone, Keyserling said, is not an indicator of the degree of the disease.

"Some studies actually indicate that fever will decrease the length of an illness or decrease secondary bacterial infections."

He said children with high fevers should not be given cold baths or sponged down with alcohol.

They can be given Tylenol, but not aspirin.

And veteran pharmacist Nick Billirakis of a Kroger store in east Cobb County says parents whose kids have the flu should give them a few days off from school and that sick people should stay out of church and synagogue, too.

"God does not sterilize the germs," he says. "Close contact in a confined area with people sneezing and coughing will spread the flu."

So, hunker down. If we're lucky, even when the flu arrives, it won't be too bad. And the best advice is to follow your doctor's advice. If you're worried, give him or her a call.

And if flu shots are available now --- or become available --- don't waste any time in getting one.

But also remember that in most years, the gamble is in your favor: Most folks don't get flu shots --- or the flu, either.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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