By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Flu season is upon us again – a potentially miserable time of year when every handshake or hug could potentially expose you to the influenza virus. It’s not just the flu that’s circulating, either… There are some persistent myths about the flu vaccine out there, and I want to debunk three big mistruths surrounding this controversial vaccine (and give you other tools in your flu-fighting box). The first one is:
MYTH #1: The Flu Vaccine Can Give You the Flu
You can’t contract influenza from the flu vaccine. The vaccine contains an inactive virus that won’t cause the flu. But it can take a couple of weeks for it to build immunity against the flu, so you might still get sick if you were exposed to the virus before or right after going in to be vaccinated.
MYTH #2: Everyone Should Get a Flu Vaccine
Two types of flu vaccines have been available in recent years: the shot and the nasal spray – but they’re not for everyone. This year, the spray is for no one: the CDC says “the Live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) – or the nasal spray vaccine – is not recommended for use during the 2016-2017 season because of concerns about its effectiveness.”
Under CDC guidelines, certain people should also not get the shot:
- Children younger than 6 months, because their immune systems are still developing.
- People with severe allergies to ingredients in the flu shot. One suspect allergen in the vaccine is mercury, which comes in the form of thimerosal, a preservative added “to prevent germs, bacteria and/or fungi from contaminating the vaccine.” Thimerosal, however, is also a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system. Some flu vaccines contain thimerosal, some don’t. If you decide to get a flu shot this year, ask for a thimerosal-free vaccine (you can find out which ones are thimerosal-free on page 21 of the CDC Advisory Committee’s 2016-2017 flu season recommendations document: TABLE 1. Influenza vaccines — United States, 2016–17 influenza season – look for an “NR” designation).
► Be cautious, too, if you have an egg allergy. Flu vaccines are made using an egg-based manufacturing process. (There are egg-free vaccines available, fortunately.)
- People with a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which your immune system attacks nerve cells. It has been linked to the flu shot (and other vaccines).
- People who are not feeling well, or have a high fever. The flu shot could compromise your immunity under these circumstances.
With so many warnings and precautions on who should not have the flu shot, definitely consult with your doctor if you fall under any of these conditions, or just want to double-check that the vaccine is safe for you.
Generally, I only recommend flu shots for the elderly and debilitated, as well as anyone who is suffering from a serious illness like severe congestive heart failure, any type of obstructive lung disease, and asthma. An alternate approach for these folks is to get vaccinated against pneumonia, a very serious flu-related complication.
MYTH #3: The Best Flu Protection is the Flu Vaccine
Believing this myth may be harmful to your health! After getting vaccinated, a lot of people are left with a false sense of security that they won’t get sick and therefore do not take other important precautions to protect themselves and stay healthy during flu season.
Understand that the flu shot is not 100 percent effective, so even if you get it, there’s still a chance you can still get sick. Here’s why: The flu shot’s formula is based on the three or four biggest strains that circulated around the world during the previous flu season. Thus, the experts can’t be sure that the vaccine will always work perfectly in the current season.
For the 2016-2017 season, “three-component vaccines are recommended to contain:
- A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
- A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus
- and B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus (B/Victoria lineage).”
There’s a four component vaccine also recommended that includes the three viruses above, as well as another B virus: B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (B/Yamagata lineage).
The flu shot may also lose its power over time. New research in both Canada and the U.S. indicates that getting the flu shot several years in a row may lessen the vaccine’s effectiveness. A 2015 report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that, in one study, flu vaccine effectiveness was 43 percent for those who skipped the 2013/14 season, but only 15 percent for participants who received both seasons’ vaccines.
With these facts in mind, don’t get fooled into thinking all you need is a flu shot. There are many other flu fighters available. Here’s what I recommend:
Other Ways to Prevent the Flu
I’m around people all day long – a lot of them with the flu, and I don’t catch it because I take steps to strengthen my immune system. You can do the same, whether you choose to get a flu shot or not. Here are some simple defenses that can help guard you from the flu:
1. Fortify your body with a consistently healthy diet that includes plenty of green and brightly colored vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil.
2. Stay hydrated. When the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, and throat are dry, it’s easier for viruses to attach to them and infect your body. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of pure water daily to prevent dryness.
3. Bolster your immunity with supplemental antioxidants. A 2014 article published in Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry pointed out that many antioxidants have anti-flu properties. For example, try vitamin C (1,000 to 5,000 mg a day in divided doses), mixed broad spectrum vitamin E with gamma tocopherol (no more than 400 IU for men and 300 IU for women daily), resveratrol (25-75 mg daily), and coenzyme QlO (50-100 mg daily), and NAC N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (600mg daily)
4. Supplement with Beta Glucan. Extracted from the cell walls of yeast, this nutrient keeps your immune system primed and ready to fight off germs. Another benefit of beta glucan supplementation is that it can lower the toxicity of thimerosal, especially when taken with vitamin C and resveratrol, according to research published in Toxins in 2012. This supplement combo may thus be important for anyone getting a thimerosal-containing flu vaccine. For seasonal flu prevention, take WPG Beta glucan 1-3, 1-6 (250-500 mg daily).
5. Exercise regularly, but moderately. A fit body can fortify you against the flu.
6. Observe good personal hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water throughout the day as you are exposed to other people and public places. Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your fingers unless you’ve just washed your hands. Make sure your kids’ hands are washed too (as anyone who has or cares for them knows how easily they can spread both joy and viruses).
7. Sleep 6-8 hours a night, since sleep bolsters your immunity.
What if you do get sick with the flu despite your best efforts? Follow your doctor’s orders, get plenty of rest, follow a nutrient-rich diet (including supplements), drink lots of fluids, take 500-600mg of NAC two times a day, and let the flu run its course.
- CDC. Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2016-2017 Influenza Season, accessed September 29, 2016.
- CDC. Prevention and Control of Seasonal Influenza with Vaccines: Recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices – United States, 2016-2017 Influenza Season, Accessed September 29, 2016.
- CDC. Vaccination: Who Should Do It, Who Should Not and Who Should Take Precautions. 2015.
- Murray T. Repeated flu shots may blunt effectiveness. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2015.
- Sgarbanti R, et al. Intracellular redox state as target for anti-influenza therapy: are antioxidants always effective? Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry. 2014;14(22):2529-2541.
- Vetvicka V and Vetvickova J. Glucan–resveratrol–vitamin C combination offers protection against toxic agents. Toxins. 2012;4(11):1301-1308.
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