by Jessica Toomer
Flu season can strike with no notice, and with so much information swirling around about how best to prepare, it can be nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction.
Guideposts.org spoke with the president of the American College of Physicians, Robert McLean, MD, MACP. McLean practices rheumatology and internal medicine at Yale New Haven Hospital and serves as an associate clinical professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
We asked McLean to debunk some myths surrounding the flu, getting sick and for some tips on how we can boost our immune systems naturally this winter. Here’s what he told us.
Because flu strains evolve, it’s important for the sick, young and elderly to get vaccinated for the flu each year. The CDC doesn’t recommend one manufacturer over another, but there’s a specific flu vaccine for the elderly that Dr. McLean suggests for those with a higher risk of contracting the illness.
“It is very important for older adults to get different vaccinations, especially the flu vaccine,” Dr. McLean explains. “They frequently have chronic conditions which make them more susceptible to some infections, especially involving the respiratory tract like influenza and some types of pneumonia. There are a few different formulations of the flu vaccine, and there is one that seems to have a slightly higher dose that has been shown to develop a more robust immune response in the elderly.”
Dr. McLean advises those 65 and older to talk with their doctor about this stronger vaccine to see if it makes sense for them.
The flu is a highly contagious viral infection and contracting it doesn’t mean you have a weak immune system. Still, many people believe they can give themselves a leg-up by taking vitamins, herbal supplements and probiotics. Unfortunately, Dr. McLean says this hasn’t been proven to help.
“There are no good compelling studies indicating that such herbal supplements ‘boost the immune system,’ he tells Guideposts.org.
A better way to prevent getting sick, according to Dr. McLean, especially with a virus like the flu, is to maintain good hygiene. That means washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wiping down surfaces before using them.
A well-rounded diet is the key to a healthier life, but claims about “superfoods” or powerful “anti-oxidants” that can boost your immune system haven’t been backed up by scientific studies. This means you can’t count on blueberries and acai bowls alone to protect you from viruses like the flu. Still, making sure you’re getting the recommended amounts of protein and veggies is always a good thing, and eating healthy foods will help guarantee you aren’t putting harmful chemicals into your body that could affect your ability to fight off disease in the long run.
“There is no doubt that diets high in vegetables and fruits are going to provide more nutrients in general with less added chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to have different types of harmful effects at higher doses,” Dr. McLean says.
We’ve all heard the claim that stress can cause illness, but when it comes to the flu, that’s just not the case. The flu is extremely contagious during the winter months, not because the holidays stress us out and weaken our immune system, but because it’s more easily spread through our communities—think holiday parties and family get-togethers.
Stress can affect your body in different ways—muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues—but there’s just not enough evidence to say it increases your chances of catching the flu.
“While it is well recognized that ‘stress’ does tend to make one's immune system a bit less robust in different ways,” Dr. McLean confirms. “[We] can’t say that stress, in particular, makes one more susceptible to contracting the extremely contagious influenza virus.”
We’ve already established how important good hygiene is, but don’t feel you need to douse yourself in anti-bacterial sprays or hand gels to stay flu-free. While it’s certainly convenient to carry antibacterial hand wipes and products with you on the go, you don’t have to go overboard.
“Plain soap and water are adequate in most situations to clean off bacteria and viruses that might be contracted by touch,” Dr. McLean says.
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