Wellness: Fly through the flu season

Fall has arrived, with its (mostly) cooler temperatures, and that means the start of a new season. No, not leaf-peeping season. Cold-and-flu season.

Local health practitioners are beginning to see residents suffering from more cold and flu symptoms, and the Buncombe County Health Department — along with other area health services — has started administering this year’s flu vaccinations. To help stay healthy, local health-care providers offer some helpful advice.

Prevention is first.

“I usually don’t take supplements,” says Corey Pine Shane, founder of Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine and a clinical practitioner in Asheville. There may be some benefit in maintaining vitamin D levels, he continues, noting, “Recent studies show that low levels of vitamin D in the body, common as the days get shorter, are associated with an increase risk of respiratory problems, such as the cold and flu.”

Shane also recommends common sense, preventative measures such as getting more rest, avoiding sugar because it lowers white-blood-cell production, dressing appropriately for the weather, and eating homemade chicken soup that’s fortified with dried Astragalus — a Chinese herb touted as an immunity booster. “Wear a scarf,” he continues. “Chinese medicine asserts that the back of the neck is a vulnerable place. Keeping it protected will help you avoid the flu.”

Most doctors recommend washing your hands often to avoid germs. Some, like the nationally known Mehmet Oz, also recommend a daily washing of your sinus cavity to prevent potential pathogens. This is easiest with the help of devices like the Neti Pot, found at most local health food stores or pharmacies.

Lisa Watersnake, founder of Asheville’s MotherLove Food, Drink and Herbals offers one more delicious preventative measure, elderberry syrup. Her 9-year-old son calls it “the good stuff” and asks for it in his morning oatmeal. “It’s the post popular remedy in Europe and takes almost no time to make.”

But what steps to take depend on what you’ve caught, and the folks at the Buncombe County Health Department have developed a helpful chart showing the difference between a col and the H1N1 virus.

First, the basics: Cold symptoms develop over a few days and commonly include a hacking, productive cough, slight body aches, sore throat, mild chest discomfort and a stuffy nose. The seasonal flu has many of the same symptoms, though it’s generally more intense, and the cough is more dry and unproductive. The flu is often is accompanied by fevers, chills and headaches. In H1N1, flu symptoms are often more severe, often lacking the sore throat or stuffy nose, and can develop in three to six hours.

With the first signs of a cold or seasonal flu, Dr. Susan Ersham at Family to Family, a holistic community health center in Asheville, recommends taking echinacea, zinc, vitamin C, probiotics, and oscillococcinum (a homeopathic remedy), as well as taking several other holistic approaches, all of which should be followed according to directions or under the care of a health practitioner.

Shane notes a few other possible herbal tinctures for specific conditions: boneset for a flu with aches and osha for ones with upper lung congestion, though always under supervision of a certified herbalist. “For some fevers under 104, I may recommend a sweat bath to certain clients,” says Shane. “Depending on the symptoms, I will ask them to drink a hot cup of boneset tea, get in a hot bath until they’re drowsy and then go to bed. Nine times out of 10 they wake up in the morning feeling great.”

According to the Buncombe County Health Department, you should see your doctor if you develop severe symptoms, especially ones that include painful swallowing or a persistent fever, cough or headache.  Other warning signs include shortness of breath, chest pain, confusion, seizures or persistent vomiting.

Hoping to avoid the flu altogether, some people opt for a yearly vaccine. The Center for Disease Control recommends the flu shot for children 6 months to 19 years of age; pregnant women; people over 50 and anyone with certain chronic medical conditions, living in long term care facilities or at high risk, such as health care workers.

“In years when the vaccine and circulating viruses are well-matched, influenza vaccines can reduce influenza by approximately 70 to 90 percent,” reports the CDC. “When they are not well matched the efficacy can be as low as 48 percent.”

Ersham recommends vaccines that have no thimerosal (mercury). Single-dose vials usually are mercury free, and the location administering the vaccine can tell you the ingredients if you ask.

From vaccinations to supplements to self-care, there are many tools and techniques that promote a healthy body and strong immune system this flu season. Your preferred health-care provider can help guide you on which ones are right for you.

— Jacquelyn Dobrinska is an Asheville-based writer and yoga therapist working toward her doctorate in Holistic Health.

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