Seeking comfort during the winter cold and flu season

Time-tested remedies share shelf space with many new products

Health & Fitness

November 30, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,Special to the Sun

Scientists may never cure the flu or the common cold, but relief is closer than you think.

As the winter cold and flu season approaches, new remedies and spins on old favorites promise comfort and convenience in products ranging from a nasal vaccine and neti pots to elderberry and chicken soup.

And despite the dizzying number of products already on the market, each year manufacturers develop more new remedies, says Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner, a University of Maryland School of Pharmacy associate professor.

"It's easy to get confused," Rodriguez de Bittner says. "There are more than 100,000 over-the-counter drugs out there." And that doesn't count the many alternative and natural products available.

New this year is a needleless flu vaccine approved by the Federal Drug Administration last June. FluMist, a nasal spray that contains a weakened live virus, is available for people age 5 to 49. The $60 price tag is not covered by insurance.

The vaccine appears to be effective against influenza, according to University of Maryland pediatrics professor James King, who helped test the vaccine, which was developed by MedImmune Inc., a Gaithersburg-based company.

The best part may be that FluMist causes no tears. "Maybe kids squinch up their noses a bit, but that's it," King says.

King also recommends sticking with time-tested flu fighters, such as pain relievers (other than aspirin, to avoid the risk of Reye's syndrome) to knock out fever, and drinking plenty of fluids.

"You can take therapies like Alka-Seltzer Cold and Flu, but it's probably a little more helpful and a lot cheaper to just take acetaminophen," he suggests.

Tylenol recently streamlined an old product and gave it a new twist: It packaged its separate day and night cold medicine formulas in a single, sun- and moon-themed "convenience" pack.

And Robitussin found a new way to make its medicine go down easier. CoughGels -- soft capsules taken without water -- are said to tame coughs for up to eight hours. A bottle of 20 sells for about $6.

Kiss My Face, an organic beauty company, has just introduced a line of flu products, including Cold & Flu Room Spray ($9) and Cold & Flu Bath Gel ($9) with essential oils of eucalyptus and fennel.

In January, spa-products giant Bath & Body Works plans to add new aromatherapy remedies that go beyond the company's standard bubble bath and hand lotions. The new products, including a eucalyptus chest rub, are designed to comfort cold and flu sufferers.

"Customers are telling us ... we need to have aromatherapy," spokeswoman Barbara Jorgensen says.

For a natural healing approach, Towson naturopath Paul Faust recommends elderberry elixirs. He says that a flavonoid -- a plant substance -- in the berries called quercetin appears to inhibit the influenza virus, and may shorten an infection.

Sambucol, a popular brand of elderberry elixir, as well as other elderberry syrups, can be found at most health food and online drugstores for about $4 a bottle.

Ricola, famous for its Alpine TV commercials, now makes Vitamin C drops -- another therapy Faust recommends -- with elderberry extract. A bag of the tart lozenges costs about $1.50 at most drugstores.

Zicam, a 3-year-old homeopathic zinc remedy touted to reduce a cold's severity, offers products designed to be taken without water. The mint-flavored oral spray and cherry-flavored chewable and dissolvable tablets cost as much as $12.99 a box.

At Gaiam, a natural-care products company, customers are buying new eucalyptus Naturopatches. The small discs, imbued with essential oils, adhere to the skin to relieve coughs and colds.

According to Gaiam's Trish Feeney, sales of neti pots, which look like mini-Aladdin's lamps and are used to irrigate sinuses, have skyrocketed and are among the company's bestsellers. Today's yoga set is clamoring for them, Feeney says.

Even Mom's favorite remedy has garnered new support. Many doctors have returned to recommending chicken soup to help ease cold and flu symptoms, not only for the comfort factor but also because it helps with fluid intake.

"Not all the time do you need an over-the-counter drug," Rodriguez de Bittner says. "Do what makes you comfortable."

Meanwhile, Progresso has introduced a "Rich and Hearty" line with two new soups: Chicken Pot Pie and Chicken and Homestyle Noodles. At a little more than $1 a can, maybe it's just what the doctor ordered.

Facing up to flu shots

State and federal health officials warn that this year's flu could pack a powerful punch.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a statement recently saying, "First, it's early in the season and flu viruses are circulating at a higher level than usual at this time, and second, the group of influenza viruses circulating this year has in previous years caused a lot of people to become ill and to develop complications."

As a result, the government is urging all citizens to get flu shots, not just those at higher risk (the elderly, health care workers and those with weakened immune systems).

It takes about two weeks after receiving the shot to develop maximum flu protection. Unlike in the past, the vaccine is in plentiful supply this year. Vaccines generally cost between $15 and $20. Call your doctor or county health department for more information.

State health officials say the flu season here typically peaks in January, although this year outbreaks in the mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere have come earlier -- and hit harder -- than expected.

While flu vaccines offer protection, none is 100 percent effective, University of Maryland flu authority Dr. James King says.

Nationally, the flu causes more than 114,000 people to be hospitalized each year, and about 36,000 patients, mainly the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, die from the illness.

Erika Hobbs

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