The Sick Season

Part One:

It’s the cold/flu/virus season, that starts somewhere around the first week of September when all the kids go back to school, and peaks around now, with rampant flu and colds and everything ranging from sniffles to ER visits going around. What to do? Well, one important thing to do is to get a flu shot, which I’ll talk more about in Part Two. But what else can we do, before and after we get sick?

If I lived some hundred or thousand or more years ago, I’d be a “woman of the herb,” like Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear, or any number of Marion Zimmer Bradley heroines. And quite a few of those remedies or preventives are actually quite effective. Honey, for example, is an excellent cough suppressant. According to recent research published in family medicine and pediatrics journals, among little kids, who probably shouldn’t take over-the-counter cough medicine anyway, honey works better than any of the available medicines, and is almost certainly safer. It’s probably a lot easier to get them to take it too  🙂  I’m not talking about those homeopathic “with honey” formulations, that might contain a molecule or so of honey, I’m talking about a teaspoon of honey at bedtime, right out of the bear-jar.

The hot liquid and steam of a good strong cup of tea is great for head and chest congestion, plus it has just a tiny bit of theophylline, a bronchodilator that we used to use much more commonly to treat acute asthma attacks. And there’s always chicken soup, with or without rice or noodles. Sinus rinses have a decent body of evidence on their side, and minimal side effects, unless you count the humiliation of snorting and drooling over the sink as a side effect, but I hope you’re doing that in the privacy of your own bathroom.

For prevention, zinc supplements have marginally better research on its side than does Vitamin C, D, or E, although all of them have some research in their favor. Hand-washing with plain soap and warm water is still the best preventive we know about, and hand gel is better than antimicrobial soaps.


Part Two:

I can’t seem to keep out of the flu shot arguments that keep popping up in my Facebook friend circle. It comes down to this: If you are at risk from flu complications, or if you are regularly around people who are at risk from flu complications, or if you are more likely to be exposed to flu, you should get vaccinated. If you choose not to be vaccinated because you are not in any of those categories, then that leaves more for those people who need it more than you do, and we really don’t have enough vaccine for absolutely everyone, so we appreciate your altruism.

Flu vaccines may be the single most heavily studied medical practice, and the vast body of the evidence from strong ethical research shows that they are more effective than not vaccinating , and safer than not vaccinating, especially when you consider that they work to improve population immunity, not just individual immunity (like tetanus vaccination does). It’s not perfect – how can it be? The viruses mutate, and it’s kind of amazing that the vaccine manufacturers come as close as they do to figuring out which way the viruses will shift.

I think it’s pretty cool, that thanks to the vaccine, my body is now a flu-killer, that a flu virus that tries to make a home on my mucous membranes will be hunted down and killed by my vaccine-informed immune system, rather than replicating and becoming a feverish, achey, congested viral factory. Take that, H1N1! Or whatever you call yourself this year.

An anecdatum from my peds hospital experience: We always had an uptick in new Type 1 diabetes cases in early spring, right after cold/flu season. Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease, not preventable by all the perfect diet and exercise in the world. We can’t do a darn thing to prevent someone’s immune system from destroying the insulin-producing beta cells of his pancreas, except maybe to figure out what triggers that extremely non-helpful immune response. Among other triggers, acute viral illnesses seem to stand out as common precursors to developing Type 1 diabetes. In 2009, researchers noticed a correlation between kids who had the H1N1 flu, and kids who developed Type 1 diabetes. It’s under further study now, but it is starting to look like flu vaccination may help prevent diabetes. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more about this!




  1. Martha Huntley · · Reply

    Helpful and interesting!

  2. Snorting and drooling – hee hee. I know, I’m real mature. 🙂
    We are fortunate that our company offers free flu shots every year. We haven’t had much absenteeism for flu, although there was a nasty upper-respiratory bug going around.

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