Ask the Doctor: Flu FAQS

Every month we ask top practitioners to address your health concerns. This month find answers for flu frequently asked questions.

Ask The Doctor: Flu

Q: How can I tell if I have the flu, and not just the common cold?

Carolyn Dean is a Maui-based MD and ND.
A: A cold is normally indicated by a scratchy throat, runny nose, and cough. With the flu, you’ll usually have a fever, headache, and intestinal symptoms that could include vomiting and loose stools. The flu can also come with body aches, especially in the neck, shoulders, and low back. With flu, fever is usually the kick-off clue (a fever is identified at 100.4 degrees or higher). In natural medicine we say a low-grade fever is good because it’s able to kill off infectious organisms (up to 103.5 is relatively safe), but for a fever of 104 degrees or higher, you should call your doctor. With children, the “red flag” is 103 degrees and not urinating, which means they’re dehydrated.

If you notice symptoms coming on, I recommend taking Oscillococcinum (, a homeopathic remedy for flu. I even take it preventively when I fly. Get lots of sleep; take Epsom salts baths to ease bodyaches; and stop eating sugar, dairy, and wheat to minimize mucous production.

Q: Should I get the flu shot?

Joan Lewis, MD, is medical director for Heel USA, a homeopathic medicine manufacturer. 
A: People who face particular risk due to heart and lung problems, obesity or pregnancy—where the flu could put their systems in serious jeopardy—should definitely get the shot. The CDC’s guidelines recommend every person over 6 months of age get the flu shot, but if you’re a healthy person, I think it’s better to risk getting the flu and fight it off. It really comes down to, as in almost all questions about your health, what is the perceived benefit versus the risk?

For children especially, it’s normal to undergo a response to all of the antigens around us [in the form of cold and flu symptoms]—that’s part of how we develop our immune systems. In traditional medicine we’ve tended to minimize those reactions because it distresses parents to see their children sick. But getting the vaccine can suppress the development of a strong immune system. Our body is constantly interacting with our environment and modifying its responses to meet challenges. Why interfere with our body’s attempts to achieve evolutionary perfection through adaptation?

That’s why I recommend foregoing the flu shot if you’re a healthy individual. If you get a flu virus, you can use homeopathic medicines that allow your body to fight it off, but make the symptoms less dramatic. One treatment we use is Engystol, which helps your white cells calm down [and, by extension, calms the flu symptoms], but doesn’t stop the reaction altogether like many conventional medicines.  

Q: What’s the best way to avoid getting the flu? 

Barbara Maddoux is an Albuquerque, New Mexico–based RN, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, and clinical nutritionist. 
A: The best way to avoid getting the flu is to stay healthy. Here are my 10 tips:
1. Eat right: That means no sugar or processed foods. Instead, eat “real” food—every color, every day. You should be eating lots of vegetables and fruits and lean, organic or free-range meats, as well as wild fish, eggs, seeds, berries, and nuts. If you’re vegetarian, get protein from soy, lentils, and beans. Also, don’t overeat; eat only when you’re hungry.

2. Limit alcohol intake: Especially if you’ve been exposed to someone with a cold or flu. Alcohol does two things: First, it uses up your B vitamins in the liver as it’s detoxified. Second, since it’s fat-soluble and easily traverses cell membranes, it weakens the immune system.

3. Supplement your diet: Find a high-potency vitamin and mineral formula to provide the nutrients that you might not be getting from your food. In particular, zinc and selenium, which have been shown to reduce the number of infections by two-thirds compared to placebo in clinical trials.

4. Avoid sick people and crowds: Particularly if you know you catch colds easily or get sick each winter. In our office, we ask that people let us know if they are sick so that they can wear a mask and decrease the chance of infecting our immune-compromised patients. Also avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose because that’s how the virus enters the system.

5. Wash your hands: This is a must. It can actually decrease the spread of disease by as much as 70 percent.

6. Drink lots of water: Staying hydrated flushes out toxic waste and allows blood to circulate more freely, bringing oxygenated blood to capillary beds and preventing microbe growth.

7. Exercise daily: Get at least 30 minutes every day, even if it’s gentle walking, stretching, yoga, or Tai Chi. Exercise helps deliver fresh oxygenated blood to your tissues, which strengthens the immune response.    

8. Relax: Stress, whether from isolation, discord, or too much work, causes an outpouring of cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and can decrease white blood cell production.   

9. Get plenty of sleep. Most people need 7 to 8 hours. During sleep, energy is conserved and the body restores the immune system.

10. Remember to smile. Positive energy supports the immune system.

Every year, there are many flu viruses, but the vaccine is designed to protect only against the three main flu strains that research indicates will cause the most illness during the flu season. The 2010–2011 flu vaccine protects against an H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus, and the H1N1 virus.

60 Million
That’s the number of Americans that were infected with the flu during 2009–2010 flu season.