It's September, and if you work in the healthcare like I do, you know that that flu season is fast approaching. If you are a Skeptic, you probably also know that flu season is prime time for a lot of anti-flu vaccine and "boost your immunity" woo, and so you are creating that special place on the wall for you to bang your head. As I've said before, I'm sure I will be getting questions about various "alternative" methods of preventing the flu and/or the common cold, although I have already written about many of those before. But as I was reading one of Dr. Harriet Hall's take down of one anti-flu shot purveyor, I realized that many of the Masters of Woo try to sell you on their product or regimen by pretending that "Get your flu shot" translates into "we don't care about anything else." Fortunately you have me to remind you that those of us who really want people to stay well are fully aware that there are other evidence-based practices that you can follow to stay well and avoid infectious diseases, such as:
1) Eat a healthy diet with adequate protein, plenty of vegetables, and don't overeat on starches and sugars so that you can keep your usual state of health. If you have a condition, like diabetes for example, where following a particular diet plan is critical for you to maintain control of your condition, then stay on your plan as much as you can. If your condition is not controlled, you will be more vulnerable to whatever contagious disease is going around. Keep in mind too that there is no evidence that anyone specific food will keep you from getting the flu.
2) Wash your hands after using the restroom, before eating, and before touching your face/nose. This is especially important when you come into contact with what I call "shared equipment," like the handles on a grocery store cart or the handles on the weights at the gym. I've noticed that some public places actually have hand-sanitizing stations and wipes for cleaning equipment placed at strategic intervals.
3) If you are sick, stay home. If your kids are sick, keep them out of school (I think this translated into "stay away from children" in the linked post). If you are feeling ill, and you have friends/co-workers/loved ones who have a condition that causes them to be immunocompromised, stay away from them until you are no longer contagious or have them done masks, etc. (Easier said than done for people who don't have paid sick days at work, I know. I wish I had an easy answer for that one).
4) Get adequate sleep as poor sleep can cause you to have a less than optimal immune system. (Again, easier said than done, although this discussion does sound familiar).
5) If you have a known vitamin deficiency, such as low vitamin D levels, you might need supplementation until your levels are back to normal.
6) Don't overdo the neti-pot, just use it temporarily if your sinuses are irritated. Overuse can actually deplete the mucus layer in the nasal passages--the reason you have that mucus layer is so it can actually serve as a barrier to infectious agents. (And keep in mind that a neti-pot will cost you on average about $10-22 depending on what comes with it, and a bottle of saline nasal spray costs you $3.88).
And of course.....
7) Get a flu shot. Sometimes we don't always get sleep, eat properly, etc and it helps to build up antibodies to an actual illness. And even if you have an adequate immune system, the people around you may not, so do it to keep them from getting sick as well.
I know, I know, some of you are still thinking, "But the flu shot doesn't cover all strains of flu!" Of course not, which is why you wash your hands, etc. And you should also read this thorough, excellent blog post by Dr. Mark Crislip which contains this lovely quote:
"If you realize that medicine is subtle and nuanced, and often the answers are filled with qualifiers and uncertainty, that the practice of medicine is messy, I think the answer is that the flu vaccine is of benefit. And that the more people who get the vaccine, the greater the benefit for everyone. You do not know how much it pains me to quote Donald Rumsfeld , but he was partly right when he said “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
It is true in medicine as well. My army is the vaccine and the data used to support it."
Take home message--Use all the tools you can to stay healthy, including a flu shot.