Cold War

Americans typically get three upper respiratory infections a year, but there are ways to lessen the odds

December 13, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun Reporter

There's a little burning at first, and soreness can last a few days.

But the shot in the arm is nothing compared with the misery of the flu, says Janet Howard, a certified medical assistant at Concentra Medical Center in downtown Baltimore. Nicknamed a "sticker," she can't count how many inoculations she's given since the beginning of last month when influenza season began.

The flu shots are the best preventive measure against the worst of the winter viruses. But not everyone can or will get them. There also is no vaccine for the flu's less severe cousin, the common cold. So, health professionals say there are other steps everyone should take to keep themselves and those around them healthy.

"Mom was right, getting the proper amount of sleep, exercise and nutrition really do go a long way to keeping your immune system healthy," said Gregory Poland, director of the vaccine research group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a professor of medicine and infectious disease.

Americans typically get three upper respiratory infections a year, including colds and the flu, he said. A healthy system might mean fewer infections for some or less severe symptoms when avoiding a bug is not possible.

Infections spread when someone sneezes or coughs droplets full of virus into the air and others breathe them in through their nose or mouth. Viruses can also be picked up from surfaces. People touch a handrail or doorknob coated in germs and then touch their faces.

Steps to protect yourself and others include sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your arm and not your hand, moving away from someone who is sneezing or coughing, washing hands frequently with soap and using a paper towel to open bathroom doors after you've washed your hands.

Those infected with a virus are typically contagious a day before and several days after they show symptoms, so they could be unintentionally spreading their cold or flu.

The flu is typically distinguished from the common cold by a fever. Other flu symptoms are extreme fatigue and body aches. A cough is also typical, but not a runny nose. Conversely, someone with a cold usually has sniffles, congestion and less severe achiness and no fever.

A cold is not often deadly and usually passes in several days.

The flu, however, can be dangerous for the old, the young and those with compromised immune systems or chronic diseases such as asthma or heart disease.

Thousands die of flu

About one-fifth of Americans are exposed to flu viruses each year and about half of them - one in 10 Americans - come down with symptoms. About 36,000 people die from the flu in a typical season, mostly the very young and old.

There aren't yet reports of mass flu outbreaks this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although a nasty cold virus has been spreading into several states and has killed at least 10 people. To stop the flu, many people began getting shots in November. With 132 million doses of vaccine expected to be produced in the 2007-2008 flu season, there is still plenty to go around.

Doctors say it's not too late to get a shot to fend off the virus that peaks in the early months of the year and is present through May.

The CDC recommends most people get a flu shot. It's injected into the arm muscle and, contrary to popular belief, cannot cause the flu. Some people experience some mild symptoms, including mild soreness and fatigue. (Concentra's Howard injects the arm that the person uses most because, she said, the increased activity helps it heal faster.)

Those with a sensitivity to eggs can't get a shot because the vaccines are made in eggs. And Flu Mist, an alternative vaccine made by Gaithersburg-based MedImmune Inc. for those who are needle-adverse, can't be given to those younger than 2 or older than 50.

Dr. Edward Seidel, regional medical director for Concentra, a large national provider of shots to the general public and to businesses in the area, said the shots and mists are effective. The company administers hundreds of thousands of shots over the year, including up to 10,000 shots in the Baltimore area. The inoculation takes effect in a week or two.

"The flu is quite preventable," he said. "But once we see it, it can spread fairly rapidly."

Seidel said that there are probably hundreds of home remedies, including vitamins and herbs people believe can prevent colds and the flu. He said, however, there isn't good scientific research to prove any really works.

That's true for vitamin C, echinacea and zinc. Ditto for berries, tea, oregano and mushrooms.

Chicken soup helps

Chicken soup, on the other hand, does appear to lessen the length and severity of an illness, but researchers don't know exactly why.

This doesn't mean the other remedies don't work. It means doctors such as Seidel can't say for sure they do. Most probably won't hurt, and he doesn't tell people not to take supplements they believe help.

Seidel said he could make other recommendations for recovery.

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