Flu: Fighting the Flu Without the Shot

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Fighting the Flu Without the Shot

WebMD Live Events Transcript

With the shortage of flu shots this year, what can you do to ward off a winter's-worth of sneezing and fevers? A dose of WebMD Live might help. Integrative medicine expert Andrew Weil, MD, joined us on Nov. 4, 2004, with his tips for flu prevention and treatment.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Weil. Thank you for joining us today. With the shortage of flu vaccine in the US, people are concerned about what, if anything, they can do to avoid getting sick. What are you doing to avoid the flu this year?

WEIL:
First I will try to avoid contact with people who are sick. Second, I will wash my hands frequently after being out in public. I will carry some alcohol wipes with me when I'm on planes or in public and use them on my hands frequently. I will take astragalus, a Chinese herb with antiviral and immune boosting properties, through the flu season. And of course, I'll keep up my general health habits.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Is astragalus safe for a 5 year old?

WEIL:
Yes, it is safe. I would give it in half the adult dose.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What dose of astragalus should we take?

WEIL:
I would get a standardized brand of astragalus and follow the recommendation on the product. It's a completely safe herb.

MODERATOR:
How severe will the flu season be? Will the lack of flu shots have that much of an impact?

WEIL:
I don't think the lack of flu shots will have that much of an impact The severity of the flu season depends on the strain of the flu going around, and there's no indication this year's will be any worse than we've seen in the past few years.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I live in a tourist state, Florida. Should I be more concerned?

WEIL:
I think the numbers of people you interact with is a factor. So the general rule is if you're out in public, meeting lots of people, wash your hands frequently.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Dr. Weil, do you think the flu shot is effective and worth getting, since it is only an estimate of which strain will be the most prevalent that year?

WEIL:
You're right; it's a gamble. Usually the CDC gets it more or less right. I just saw an interesting piece of research from Europe suggesting that people over 65 who have annual flu shots are generally healthier than people who don't. The reason for that is not known.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I traveled to Brazil recently and came back with guarana powder. I understand it may improve our natural resistance to flu related germs, increase stamina, and curb appetite because of its caffeine-like properties. The indigenous people in the Amazon region swear by it. What are your thoughts and experience with this natural guarana powder?

WEIL:
Guarana is a caffeine-containing seed widely consumed in beverages in Brazil and available here in various forms. It is a stimulant, like coffee, and I know of no general health benefits for it or any specific effects on flu.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Is
echinacea good for immune support?

WEIL:
Yes. There's a great deal of research showing that echinacea increases the immune function. It's quite safe. I use it if I feel a cold coming on. I don't know how effective it is as a preventive. I think astragalus is a better bet in reducing chances of getting the flu.

"There's a great deal of research showing that echinacea increases the immune function. It's quite safe."

MEMBER QUESTION:
What dose of echinacea do you take for keeping a cold at bay?

WEIL:
For adults I recommend one teaspoon of echinacea tincture in a little water four times a day. If you use a capsule form, follow the dosage recommendations on the product. Echinacea is quite safe.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Dr. Weil, as a doctor, how do you avoid being around sick people?

WEIL:
I don't work in hospitals very much. I supervise an outpatient clinic and I wash my hands frequently. The main route of the flu virus is from hands to eyes and mouth. By the way, the flu virus can exist on inanimate objects, like doorknobs, for some time.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Do liquid hand sanitizers work as well as alcohol wipes?

WEIL:
I think alcohol wipes are preferable because they don't contribute to bacterial resistance. Many of the antibacterial products on the market are not as good an idea.

By the way, ordinary soap and warm water is fine if you wash long enough, about the length of time it takes to sing happy birthday.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Living on a college campus, what types of things can I do to avoid the flu, other than getting the flu shot?

WEIL:
Keep up good habits of nutrition; exercise, stress reduction and rest, all of which may be easier said than done when you're in college. I'd also recommend following the advice given above about the hand washing and taking astragalus during the flu season.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Would you advise taking astragalus if you are in your 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy?

WEIL:
Generally I discourage women from taking anything in the first trimester. Astragalus is completely nontoxic. I think it would be fine to take later in pregnancy.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Would you advise taking astragalus once you have taken a flu shot?

WEIL:
Again, it can't hurt, because astragalus has general immune boosting effects and can help against colds.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My husband will NOT get the flu shot. Friends have been telling him that the mercury in the shots, plus the flu itself, can make him deathly sick, and also can affect his health in other ways. I always get the shot, and nothing affects me at all. What can I tell him to get him to listen to me and get the shot? We live with my elderly parents, and I am afraid of giving it to them.

WEIL:
A mercury compound has been used as a preservative in some vaccines, but I don't think that's true for the flu shot. In any case, this is being phased out. I think the risk of flu shots is minimal.

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MEMBER QUESTION:
Do you feel the homeopathic flu solution from Dolisos will help ward off the flu this season?

WEIL:
The homeopathic flu remedies are harmless, but I have not seen good evidence for their efficacy.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Would colloidal Silver be of help?

WEIL:
Colloidal silver preparations are probably effective against some bacterial infections. I don't have any information about whether they would be helpful for flu.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What can we do for our young children to boost their immune system this flu season?

WEIL:
I think giving children a good multivitamin is important, especially if they're not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Teach them to wash their hands frequently, and I would consider giving a half dose of astragalus during the season to boost immunity.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Are folks with autoimmune disease at greater risk?

WEIL:
No.

MEMBER QUESTION:
When the SARS virus was in the news, a friend from the Philippines sent me an e-mail from her sister in Hong Kong for a recipe for making tea: 1 garlic clove, a few slices of ginger, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon honey. Does it sound like it would be good to prevent flu?

WEIL:
It can't hurt. Actually, this is the kind of soup Chinese people will add astragalus root to. It has a pleasant taste and that's the common way of consuming astragalus in China.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Green tea helps the immune system. What about the green tea supplements; are they as effective?

WEIL:
There may be an advantage to green tea supplements for people who don't want the caffeine in green tea, but I think it also depends on the brand and quality of the supplement. I generally tell people to drink good quality green tea.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I am worried about getting the flu shot for children because their immune systems are not fully developed and we don't know the long-term effects. Do I have it wrong?

WEIL:
I don't think that's a real concern. Immunizations can actually help the immune system mature, and I would follow the CDC guidelines about giving flu shots to children.

"I think giving children a good multivitamin is important, especially if they're not eating enough fruits and vegetables."

MEMBER QUESTION:
I had a total abdominal hysterectomy 3 weeks ago. How long will my immune system be compromised, and should I try to get the flu shot? I don't want to take it from someone else who may need it more.

WEIL:
I think your immune system should be just fine by now, and I think people under the age of 65 really don't need the flu shot, unless they have preexisting respiratory disease.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Let's say I get the flu, what should I do to lessen the length and severity of symptoms

WEIL:
First you should know there are three prescription drugs that effectively do this if you take them within 36 hours of first onset of symptoms. It would be a good idea to arrange with a physician how to get these drugs if you do get the flu.

Other than that, you can try the homeopathic remedies or black elderberry syrup, which shows some efficacy against flu, and treat the symptoms as needed.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What are the 3 prescription drugs available to fight the flu symptoms?

WEIL:
The first one is called Tamiflu; the second is amantidine; and the third is Relenza. These have somewhat different indications and effects, so it would be best to talk to your physician about which one to keep on hand or to have a prescription for in case you need it.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Does the flu mist work well? Why don't they recommend it for those over 49?

WEIL:
Flu mist does work well. It's a live virus vaccine as opposed to the shot, which is a killed virus. The concern in older people is they may be at greater risk for vaccine reactions from a live virus product because their immune systems are not as efficient. However, I think it's perfectly okay for people up to 65 to use the flu mist. Flu mist is available, although the supplies are also limited. It also costs more than the flu shot.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I understand that slippery elm is good for a flu-related sore throat, but in what format? I can't imagine a tablet will help once in the stomach.

WEIL:
There are slippery elm lozenges that you can buy in the health food store. You can suck on them and they soothe a sore throat.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Dr. Weil, I have seen people out in public sneeze into a tissue and then not wash their hands. Is using a tissue enough of a safeguard?

WEIL:
If they don't wash their hands then they become vehicles for transmitting viruses. It's up to you to wash your hands.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I have many drug allergies. How can I find out if a particular herbal supplement contains any of these allergens?

WEIL:
Well, you read the labels, and then you can look up ingredients you're unfamiliar with on the Internet or consult a knowledgeable health practitioner.

MEMBER QUESTION:
There are many immune-boosting products, for example various mushrooms, acidophilus, etc. Do you recommend any of these over the others?

WEIL:
Some of them have specific uses or different uses. Astragalus has antiviral effects and is particularly indicated for prevention of flu. The Asian mushrooms have anticancer effects. One of them, reishi, is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. So you need to do a little homework to find out which is indicated for you.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Is a maitake, reishi, and shitake combo in pill form ok to take if you have asthma aggravated by mold?

WEIL:
Should be ok. But when you start any substance like that, just pay attention to make sure you don't get an allergic reaction to it.

MODERATOR:
Of course the most basic thing we need to do is take care of our overall health. What are your top 5 recommendations?

WEIL:
You'll find all of this in my book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health , or on my web site, www.drweil.com.

  • Good nutrition
  • Regular physical activity
  • Adequate rest and sleep
  • Judicious use of dietary supplements and natural products, for example, to enhance immunity
  • Practicing some techniques of stress reduction -- my personal favorite is breathing exercises

MEMBER QUESTION:
It has been suggested that a high dose of vitamin C and zinc, 50m daily, will help boost the immune system Do you agree?

WEIL:
I don't think we really have any evidence for the efficacy of high doses of vitamin C in that regard. As for zinc, I usually recommend people stay around 15 milligrams a day. High doses can actually suppress immunity.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What about claims of Dr. L. Pauling about 20 g/day of vitamin C for everyone?

WEIL:
I think Dr. Pauling's claims have simply not been supported by scientific evidence, and even the Linus Pauling institute in Oregon now says that the human body can't use more than about 200 milligrams of vitamin C a day. Higher doses are probably safe for most people, but they're simply a waste of money.

"The human body can't use more than about 200 milligrams of vitamin C a day. Higher doses are probably safe for most people, but they're simply a waste of money."

MEMBER QUESTION:
How many mg of vitamin C are needed by smokers? And what do you think is the role of ascorbyl palmitate in vitamin C supplementation?

WEIL:
The health benefits of taking vitamin C are insignificant compared to those of quitting smoking. So please keep that in mind. I don't think smokers need any more vitamin C than the rest of us, but you might check out products containing turmeric, which are available to protect the body from effects of smoke.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I take quite a few supplements. You recommend "judicious use." Is there any common mistake(s) that you see frequently (overuse/underuse)?

WEIL:
Often there are optimal dose ranges for supplements, and often taking too much or too little is not ideal. There is wide variation in supplements, so I would urge you to do research to find out the best forms and amounts of supplements you choose to take.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What are the best places to research supplement use?

WEIL:
If I can beat my own drum, I would urge you to go to the vitamin advisor on drweil.com or consult my books.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Isn't it conceivable that someone who takes FluMist could transmit the virus for a short time after receiving it?

WEIL:
Yes, that is true, probably up to four days. Therefore, if you do get FluMist you should avoid close contact with susceptible individuals; for example, debilitated older people.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Is FluMist effective at your age?

WEIL:
I'm 62 and it's definitely effective. I'm assured it's ok for people up to 65 to use it.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What do you recommend for psoriatic patients on Enbrel to avoid the flu?

WEIL:
Enbrel suppresses certain aspects of immunity. It would be perfectly ok for patients taking it to use astragalus.

MODERATOR:
Any specific recommendations for individual symptoms of the flu?

WEIL:
Yes:

  • If you have a cough, I would use a cough suppressant, either over the counter or a narcotic.
  • You can take an analgesic for muscle aches and pains.
  • Gargle or use lozenges for sore throat.
  • If you are really sick you're probably not going to want to get out of bed.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of fluid.
  • Breathe steam, if you can, to soothe the respiratory system.
  • Remember the prescription drugs I mentioned earlier. They have a high rate of efficacy for shortening and severity of the flu if you start to take them promptly.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I'm 10 weeks pregnant with my second child and I decided not to get the flu shot because I'm afraid it could hurt the baby (read a report about a correlation between the flu shot and autistic children), especially in the first three months. Why do some doctors recommend getting the flu shot and others say to stay away from it in the first three months? And, how bad can the flu be for a normally healthy and strong pregnant woman?

WEIL:
I think there's a division of medical opinion about risks of flu shots in pregnancy. I think it's prudent to avoid it in the first trimester. After that, I think it's ok. Ordinary flu is unpleasant, but not very, very serious for young people who are healthy. But flu is not just a bad cold; it's a different and more serious disease, and some strains of it can be very dangerous. I don't think we're going to see that this year, so you'll probably be fine. Remember, you can always take astragalus.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Dr. Weil, if you were (definitely) diagnosed with MS, would you get the flu shot? Which is the greater risk; that the shot itself might trigger a flare-up of the MS, or that contracting the flu would do the same?

WEIL:
That's a hard question. I guess I think the risks of the flu shot in that situation are not that great.

"Please don't be too paranoid about flu. This is an ordinary flu season coming up and the shortage of vaccine is not a reason to panic."

MEMBER QUESTION:
Do you or your family take the flu shot?

WEIL:
I generally don't take flu shots. However, I got the flu last year, rather late, in March. I got it in Japan and had the first symptom, a cough, on the flight home. I was pretty sick for five days. If the flu vaccine were not in short supply, I might get it this year, but given the situation, I will not take it, although I may take flu mist. My daughter, who is 13, got a flu shot last year.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I believe a healthy diet high in garlic, hot peppers and green leafy vegetables, among others, is effective in fighting the winter flu and common colds. You touched on this in your book on healthy cooking. Do you agree?

WEIL:
I absolutely agree, and this is a regular part of my diet at this season.

MODERATOR:
We are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us, Dr. Weil?

WEIL:
Please don't be too paranoid about flu. This is an ordinary flu season coming up and the shortage of vaccine is not a reason to panic. There are many things you can do to reduce your chances of getting it and many things to do if you do.

MODERATOR:
Can you please give everyone your web site address again?

WEIL:
Yes. It's www.drweil.com. I invite you all to check it out. For those with other questions, please go to my site and use the search engine. There's a great deal of information there. There's a great chance the answer to your question is there.

MODERATOR:
Our thanks to Andrew Weil, MD, for joining us.



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Reviewed on 11/16/2004 2:50:34 PM

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