Because of a flu-vaccine shortage this season, some people may have to rely on their immune system instead of a flu shot to stay healthy this winter. But, area doctors and practitioners have alternative suggestions for treating the flu if the shot is not an option or not available.
The shot shortage stems from trouble trying to grow one of the three strains in this year's vaccine and renovations required at two of the immunization production plants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"The problem this year was that one strain of the vaccine became tainted in August," Dr. Thomas Told of Craig Medical Center said. "It was the goal of the World Health Organization to vaccinate everybody in the world this year, but the batch got tainted so there is a shortage."
The shortage should ease by December, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the CDC.
The CDC is telling health officials to treat those most susceptible first the elderly, the immuno-compromised, such as patients with AIDS or those who are undergoing chemotherapy, and people with cardiovascular and pulmonary problems.
Told said the influenza season in Moffat County generally runs from December through May with a peak in March.
"Our main effort is to prevent everyone from getting the flu," Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association's Marilyn Bouldin said. "We advise people to get enough rest, cover their mouths, wash their hands, and stay healthy by life-style behavior."
The CDC recommends vaccination for everyone over 50, even if they are healthy; and for those at risk with AIDS, cancer or other chronic ailments; nursing home residents and employees; and people who work in medical facilities.
But the shot isn't appealing to everyone.
"I'm scared to death of getting a flu shot," Craig resident, Kathy Stehle said. "I don't want my immune system messed up. Basically, I'm healthy and I've never had the flu."
Joel Spencer of Craig has never been bothered by the flu.
"I don't get the flu shot," he said. "I think vaccinations could possibly lead to stronger and stronger strains of the flu. I rely on my immune system to keep me healthy."
According to Dr. Chad Powell of Craig Chiropractic Clinic, the flu will run its course regardless of how you treat it.
"I rarely prescribe the flu shot, except for people in high risk groups," he said. "I'm not against the flu shot, but it's artificial immunity where a healthy body can fend for itself."
What if you are healthy, don't want the shot, and catch the flu anyway?
"Rest in bed, eat nourishing food, drink lots of liquids, and get stress out of your life. Stress opens up a gigantic black hole in the immune system, predisposing you to getting sick," Powell said.
Some over-the-counter medicines can ease the discomfort of cough, nasal congestion and sore throat. A steam vaporizer puts moisture into the air and may make breathing easier. Aspirin may relieve fever and muscle aches. Because it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, aspirin should not be given to children who have fever.
If these remedies don't help a severe bout of flu, your physician may prescribe amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu) oral antiviral drugs that are active against type A influenza, Told said.
Tamiflu is not meant to replace the flu vaccine, Told said.
"It's a chemical that works to shut down the virus' ability to multiply, while the flu vaccine uses the patient's own immune system to fight off the virus," he explained.
A 10-day supply of Tamiflu costs $60 retail, compared to $20 or less for the vaccine.
"Luckily, the vaccine is on a voluntary basis," Neil O'Keefe, a registered acupuncturist in Steamboat Springs said. "There's a certain amount of misinformation about it some say everybody needs the shot, and that's just not true. There are alternatives."
"Oscillococcinum is one of the most powerful products on the market for the flu," Mary Funkhouser, herbalist and owner of Naturally Fine Herbs health food store in Craig, said.
Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic mixture, enjoys great popularity in Europe as a flu remedy. Studies have shown this treatment may reduce the duration of an illness and the severity of symptoms. Other homeopathic preparations have shown some success in treating upper respiratory infections, Funkhouser said.
Garlic, because of its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, can strengthen the immune system and help prevent colds and flu. Because the antioxidant element of garlic, known as Allicin, appears only in certain types of preparations, such as garlic powder, Funkhouser advises choosing your garlic supplement carefully. Ginseng may help prevent flu by stimulating the immune system.
Astragalus, a traditional Chinese herb (huang qi), helps the body fight the flu in various ways. Astragalus boosts the immune system and is considered ideal for people who are immuno-compromised because it stimulates the natural production of interferon and restores depleted red blood cells in the bone marrow, Funkhouser said.
Echinacea enhances the immune system and strengthens defenses against the flu but evidence is mixed on its ability to treat upper respiratory infections once you've come down with the flu. Take small doses for no more than eight weeks, since prolonged use may suppress the immune system.
Alternative practitioners suggest drinking ginger tea several times a day to bring relief for flu sufferers. Try a tea of coriander, cinnamon and ginger for fever reduction. Goldenseal may work to reduce fever, as well. Numerous other herbs, including elder flower, myrrh, willow bark, rose hips, honeysuckle flowers and boneset, could bring relief from the many symptoms that accompany the flu.
O'Keefe said acupuncture treatments help keep the immune system healthy. Raised body temperature, respiration, pulse and blood pressure may be lowered through acupuncture treatment of severe colds and flu. The World Health Organization supports the use of acupuncture for respiratory and infectious complications of the flu.
OnHealth.com, an Internet health resource with a medical advisory board composed of research scientists and board certified medical doctors, recommends the following during flu season:
n Give up smoking which damages the respiratory tract and alcohol, since both substances lower resistance to infection in general.
n Avoid sleeping in a room with someone who has flu; the virus is easily spread in the air.
n Wash your hands often to kill viruses you may have picked up by touching contaminated objects like doorknobs or phone receivers.
n Try to avoid crowds, and give people who are coughing or sneezing a wide berth. Airplanes are especially effective at exposing people to flu viruses because cabin air is recirculated.
n Keep up your resistance by eating a good diet, drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of rest. Stay warm and dry so your body can fight off infection by flu and other viruses.
Call your doctor if:
n Your immune system is already weakened by cancer, diabetes, AIDS or other conditions.
n You have a serious illness like chronic heart or kidney disease, impaired breathing, cystic fibrosis or chronic anemia. You may be at risk of developing serious secondary complications and need to be carefully monitored as long as symptoms last.
n Your fever lasts more than three or four days, you become short of breath while resting, or you have chest pain. You may have developed pneumonia.
Public-health officials seem confident people who need the vaccine will get it this season. Of the people who don't get the shot, a few may have to stay home and rest for a few days. According to Powell, if you do get the flu don't worry. "For most of us, it will run its course regardless of how you treat it," he said.