Signs exclaiming, “Get your flu shot today!” are almost as common a sight in October as pumpkins. Despite the vociferousness of “anti-vaxxers,” the flu vaccine is a sound idea for children and adults, especially those who are in in close quarters with other people during the late autumn and winter. Here, viruses have a carnival of fun, jumping from person to person, or hanging out on a surface waiting to be picked up by a hand.
While seasonal flu virus cases occur all year long in the United States, these full-body knockouts are most common during the late fall and winter. Typically, flu activity begins to increase in October, climbing in November and peaking from December through February; although sometimes bouts can last until May.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through the data it gathers from its FluView, FluView Interactive and Weekly US Influenza Summary Update (each week from October through May), shows peak flu activity in the United States dating from the 1982/83 season.
What is the Flu?
The CDC has a cogent definition of “flu,” short for influenza: it is “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.”
Of note, the CDC states that the best way to prevent getting the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. It is vitally important to know that any dietary supplement or natural product cannot “prevent” the flu, nor can it treat such an infection. As it stands, there is no absolute sure-fire way of completely preventing a flu virus from blooming within you.
The problem with the flu is that is a most virulent infectious disease—meaning it spreads easily between humans: even simply talking can expel live flu viruses via breath. Droplets that are invisible to your naked eye can contain the virus, and are typically expelled via sneezing or coughing. And it’s not just by touching your mouth or your nose—even your eyes are an entryway for a determined flu virus to scurry and burrow into the warm haven of your body, its most unwilling and unwitting host.
Symptoms include the obvious (fever/chills, sore through, aches, fatigue), as well as the not-so-obvious, vomiting and/or diarrhea. And, not everyone will exhibit a fever—so these symptoms can appear and you may think that due to lack of a fever, it’s just a garden-variety cold.
Here’s a scary notion that will likely send you directly to the nearest flu vaccine provider—you. may be able to spread the flu to your loved ones (and others) even before the clarion call of that first symptom. Those infected with the flu are the most contagious in the first four days after the illness begins; even up to one day prior to symptom development. Symptom onset is usually felt anywhere between one and four days after exposure, but the typical incubation time is two days.
Lest you believe that nearly everyone gets the flu each year (and it often does seem to “go around”), on average about 8% of the US population deals with this nastiness each season. That said up to 30% of people carrying the flu virus have no symptoms, so you never know who could deal the blow.
Epidemics do happen. As do pandemics. (Side fact: the difference between the two is that an epidemic is when an illness is actively spreading and out of current control; while pandemic relates to something that is spread geographically – a disease that affects an entire nation, global region or the world.)
The historic 1918-1919 flu pandemic began on the same day in both Boston and Bombay (Mumbai). This discovery led to the theory of panspermia. Other memorable influenzas of yore include Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and H1N1. Flu vaccinations originated in 1938, developed by Jonas Salk (also the creator of the polio vaccine) and Thomas Francis. This was five years after researchers discovered that viruses A and B (rarely C) caused flu; before 1933, it was thought to be caused by a bacterium H. influenzae.
Note that antibiotics will NOT work against viral influenza. For this, you would need antiviral medicines, which your doctor will prescribe if he or she deems necessary. Your doctor may give you one of four prescriptions: Tamiflu® (oseltamivir phosphate), Rapivab® (peramivir), Xofluza® (baloxavir marboxil) and Relenza® (zanamivir), all FDA approved to help you vanquish the virus sooner.
The flu shot you receive is made from a virus—but it is inactivated and therefore cannot transmit the infection. When you hear someone declare they got sick from the flu infection, according to Harvard Health, they likely were incubating the virus prior to the vaccination getting to work; it takes up to two weeks for it to activate and prevent flu.
How to Minimize Risk of Flu
Again, there’s no surefire way of preventing the flu, but you can certainly protect yourself by optimizing your immune system.
Firstly: get that flu shot. You can go to your doctor, or one of the many chain pharmacies and other health related outlets. Take the time to talk about prevention while you’re there, you may learn something new and interesting.
Secondly: Wash your hands constantly, as hands are the primary points of contact we use all the time (and are often so unaware of what we are touching). We also tend to be unaware of how frequently we rub our noses, our mouths and our eyes—where virus transference occurs. And by the way—no, you cannot catch the flu by going out into the cold with your hair still wet.
One study showed that the combination of multiple handwashings per day and wearing a face mask can reduce risk of flu virus exposure. The authors wrote, “The combination of hand hygiene with facemasks was found to have statistically significant efficacy against laboratory-confirmed influenza….”
Third: Take your supplements. The top winter supplements – echinacea, vitamin C, zinc, elderberry – are “top” for a reason. They have each been shown in enough studies to help your immune system to work a bit more efficiently during times of stress in the winter, to bolster resistance to virus activation.
Probiotics key in optimizing your immune system from October through the winter into early spring. And there were studies showing that probiotics are a beneficial tool in augmenting the function of the immune system in people who had flu vaccines. For example, one meta-analysis of nine human clinical trials included 623 people inoculated with the flu vaccine. Of those who took probiotics (and prebiotics) showed significant improvement in what’s known as seroprotection against the H1N1 strain. Seroprotection describes a desirable antibody response that can prevent infection after a vaccination.
Another systematic review and meta-analysis of 12 studies with a total of 688 participants was conducted to determine the influence of pro-, pre- and synbiotics on response to flu vaccination. The study authors observed that those who supplemented with beneficial bacteria showed significantly more effective inhibition of flu virus hemagglutination. (Hemagglutinin is a protein, the sticky substance on the ends of a virus’ spikes that allows it to adhere itself into the host’s tissues.)
Another way to arm yourself during flu season is to be very mindful of how you deal with stress – stress in life is inevitable and when allowed to run amok can impede the performance of your immune system, allowing opportunistic flu viruses an open invitation to make your life miserable for up to two weeks. Stress management, and appropriate supplementation featuring probiotics can help fortify your immunity during the winter – so you can have fun and enjoy cold-weather activities.