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6 Ways This ER Doctor Keeps Flu-Free Every Year

By Darria Long Gillespie
MD, FACEP

Very little scares emergency physicians. 

Trauma? Strokes? Nope. Ebola protocols? Not that either.

But a bad flu season? That's a whole different story.

With 1.3 million emergency visits every yeari, 200,000 hospitalizationsii, and up to 49,000 deathsiii, a bad flu year is enough to scare even the most intrepid of us. With the first diagnosed flu case of the year,flu season has officially started (it was only slightly edged out by the holiday season, which according to the music playlist at my local mall, started this year on Oct 5).  

You may have heard about last year's vaccine not being perfectly effective, which is true. Depending on the year, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine ranges from 23 percent (last year) to 60 percent (2010)iv.  Earlier this month, I asked Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC what to expect: "Last year, the flu virus changed after the vaccine had already been manufactured.  This year…what we've seen so far is well-matched.  Even with a non-well matched vaccine, it's still the best way to prevent you from getting the flu." Plus, it cuts your risk of complications like flu-related pneumonia in halfv, and vaccinating pregnant women prevents 92%of infant hospitalizations for the fluvi.

When I'm working in the ER, you can be sure that I'm exposed to plenty of germs.  But I don't have time for the flu (who of us does?), plus, I don't particularly like feeling like I was hit by a truck (classic flu symptoms).  So,I take every precaution to keep from catching the flu. 

Here's what my family and I do to cut our risk of the flu:

  • Vaccinate! (Well, you knew that one was coming, right?). Everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated.  Last year, my daughter and I got them at the same place - we even had matching band aids! If you haven't done so yet,get on that STAT!
  • If you know someone has had flu-like symptoms, keep a distance. [It's not personal].  Influenza mostly spreads via droplets that can travel 3 feet when someone coughs, sneezes,or talks1. Keep a family member with a fever away from everyone else for at least 24 hours after it's gone.
  • Wash your hands religiously! I carry lotion with me in the winter, because I wash so frequently, and if water's not available,I'll use an alcohol-based rub.  Be sure to do this especially before touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Others may look at me strangely, but (especially around cold/flu season), I'll use a paper towel to open the bathroom door to leave. Turn a public doorknob or press an elevator button? Try to use a sleeve. It beats getting the flu.. 
  • Eat fruits and veggies high in phytochemicals (think bright-colored beets, cherries, kiwi, mango…) and try to get 20-30 minutes of moderate cardio 5 days a week to rev up your immune system.

  • Be cautious about taking supplements. Despite the hype, most studies show that supplements alone don't help with flu symptoms.  It's especially important to know (and not take the risk) if you're taking multiple medications or have chronic health conditions, since they can interact with your treatment.  On the other hand, if you're healthy, not taking medications, and don't have contraindications, taking normal (non-mega) doses supplements like Zinc, Vitamin C, mushroom supplements (recently recommended to me by a colleague), or Vitamin D may be worth a try.

1. http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2013/01/15/catchingtheflu/

How do you know if you have the flu?

Many of my patients confuse the flu with the stomach virus - while it's true that some people may have stomach-related symptoms, it's not common, and tends to be more the case in children.  Symptoms usually come on abruptly (unlike a "cold", which tends to be gradual) and typically include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Body/muscle aches - this is the "hit by a truck" part
  • Significant fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Congested or runny nose
  • Headache

What to do if you DO get the flu: 

  • Ask your doctor about anti-viral medications. To get the most benefit (reduce your symptoms by around ½ - 3 daysvii), you'll need to start a prescription within 48 hours of having symptoms (ideally 24-30 hours). People who are very ill or have risk factors (such as chronic health conditions)may benefit even more from antiviral medicines.
  • Rest. Your body and symptoms will likely make it impossible for you to do otherwise, but take this to heart. 
  • Drink fluids. You may not have an appetite and that's ok, but be sure to drink clear fluids, enough so that you're having to getup to urinate every 3-5 hours. 
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications for symptom relief. If you get the flu, OTC meds are a mainstay for relieving symptoms while your body fights off the virus. 

What's your favorite flu-preventing tip or remedy? Tweet me @DrDarria or Facebook message @ Dr. Darria Long Gillespie.  I'd love to know!

About the author: Dr. DarriaLong Gillespie is an ER physician at Northside Hospital of Atlanta,GA, and SVP of Clinical Strategy at Sharecare. You can read more by Dr. Long Gillespie at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-darria-long-gillespie/or www.drdarria.com.  Follow her on twitter @drdarria.