Every fall, along with the inevitable flu, I find myself contracting another equally sinister malady: an epidemic of people asking me whether or not I've had my shot. If I say that I haven't, I'm subjected to worried looks as if I am at risk of serious illness. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Let's be honest: the flu vaccine does an awful lot of good for the limited number of persons for whom it is designed, including high-risk patients such as the elderly, the seriously ill, health-care workers and members of the armed forces. The World Health Organization claims that the risk of death from influenza is reduced substantially amongst the elderly who receive the vaccine.
The problem is that for the vast majority of us who don't fit into those high-risk categories, it's a waste of time and money. There are easier, cheaper and better ways for most human beings to protect against influenza and other illnesses! The best way to avoid the flu is to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Ensuring that you have the appropriate amount of vitamins and a balanced diet will help your body fight all illnesses, not just influenza. Vitamin C in particular offers medically accepted immune system benefits. On the other hand, negative lifestyle choices, including smoking tobacco or marijuana, are associated with a weakened immune system and a longer recovery period amongst the ill.
Along with a balanced diet, exercise is critical in flu prevention. Exercise strengthens the lungs and heart, which can in turn maintain a strong immune system and keep disease-defeating white blood cells pumping through your bloodstream. A study by the University of Chicago suggests that regular exercise can cut in half the length of time that the flu lasts once the virus is contracted. It should be noted, however, that when you become sick, it is important to stop exercising until you have completely recovered.
Hygiene cannot be underrated in protecting against flu. Millions of sick days and visits to the doctor could be avoided if people took three simple steps: covering their mouths when coughing and sneezing, carefully washing their hands with soap and hot water after using the washroom, and choosing clean public washrooms (or avoiding them altogether). Good manners aren't just polite; they're healthy as well!
Regardless of how healthy your lifestyle is, eventually you will come down with the flu. As important as it is to minimize your chances of getting it, it is even more important to deal with it properly. Every health-care worker, whether a conventional or holistic doctor, a pharmacist or a herbalist, an acupuncturist or an epidemiologist, will give the same advice about what to do when you get the flu: Rest, rest, and rest some more!
Not only will this help prevent transmission of the flu from you to your co-workers, friends and loved ones, it will also help make you healthy as quickly as possible. One day spent resting in bed and eating chicken noodle soup can help prevent a week of sneezing, sniffling and sickness.
If you do decide that after you've done all of these things you still require the flu vaccine, you should be aware of its risks and limitations. The flu vaccine can only help fight the flu; don't expect to avoid head or chest colds, ear infections, chicken pox, mononucleosis, strep throat, stomach sickness or any other common illness.
The flu vaccine does not prevent influenza; it only acts to partially reduce the chance and length of infection. It is designed to help fight against only a few of the many strains of virus. Even then, it does not guarantee prevention. Many who receive the flu vaccine experience flu-like side effects afterwards. Some patients experience anaphylaxis when receiving the vaccine; consider asking your doctor if you may be at risk of this or other serious side effects.
Finally, some flu vaccines contain thimerosal, a mercury-based compound that is used as a preservative. Thimerosal has been phased out in Europe and North America due to concerns that it is toxic to humans (particularly the young), but it is still used in several multi-dose childhood influenza vaccines. Others contain traces of formaldehyde (embalming fluid), used to inactivate live virus material.
A limited number of doses of the flu vaccine are manufactured each year. It is not designed so that every adult can receive an annual flu vaccination. If you are a member of one of the high-risk groups for whom the vaccine was designed, then it is important for you to see your doctor and review your options. If you are not part of a high-risk group, you should consider whether or not there are easier, cheaper and better ways to stay healthy.