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Flu, Cold Season Nothing to Sneeze at

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 1998 – Ah-choo! Gesundheit.

That's right. The cold and flu season is upon us. The bad news is, you may find it impossible to completely avoid.

The good news is you can help yourself try to avoid getting the seasonal sickness and treat yourself if you do succumb -- up to a point: See a doctor if you get sick and don't get better in a few days after healthy doses of water, chicken soup, sleep, soap operas and endlessly repeated "news." If that cough you began disrupting your work place with a week ago hasn't gotten any better, get thee to a doctor.

Doctors can help you when you can't help yourself, and you should let them, says one of their -- and our -- own, Army Dr. (Maj.) Roberto Nang. We all know what we're supposed to do to avoid and treat flu and colds; it's common sense, he said. But just in case you're willing to tempt fate and infect your office or family, he offers good reasons for greater prudence, bolstered by experience.

And Nang should know -- physician, soldier, human being. As program manager for disease and injury control at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., he has a handle on your hurt.

More good news from the good doctor: It's not too late to get a flu shot if you haven't yet. "The start of the flu season is when the cold weather hurts," Nang said. "That's when you should get your flu shot."

That begs the question, should you get one? For most service members, it's a moot point: Your top sergeant or chief says go get a shot, and you go. But the vaccines are especially important to those who are more susceptible to complications if they contract flu -- namely, young children, people over 65 and those with chronic breathing or circulatory problems. Nang suggests it's smart medicine to get the annual shot no matter your age or health.

Here's why:

"Many different strains of flu occur throughout the United States and the world," Nang said. "The current flu vaccine is created to anticipate prevention of the most prevalently circulating flu strains." The three viruses roaming the globe this year and looking to knock you down a notch are dubbed Types A and B Beijing and Type A Sydney. Why leave yourself vulnerable when science has developed a customized, tested vaccine to meet the latest threat head-on?

For the aforementioned susceptible to complications who need more incentives, Nang offers this: "There is a possibility that they could easily contract bacterial infection, strep pneumonia, for example. One of the biggest killer epidemics in the world occurred in 1918 and 1919, when millions worldwide died from the flu."

So, get your shot, Nang said. If you're not sure when and where it's available, consult with the health care provider you routinely use or the one nearest you. Shots, he said, are the No. 1 way to prevent flu.

Colds are a different story. Some 200 different cold viruses are lurking about -- too many for scientists to develop a vaccine. Nang said your best defense is to keep up a good defense. Here's how:

"Keep yourself three to five feet away from coughers. If you can't, try to turn your back a little or keep your eyes and nose away from them." Nang said cold and flu germs are often projected by coughs and sneezes and enter your body through your eyes and nose.

You may also come into contact with the germs through touch -- shaking hands with an affected person, even handling a doorknob or faucet someone with the virus touched before you. It isn't that the germs penetrate your skin. What they do is hopscotch when you later touch your mouth, nose, eyes -- or touch something else that does, such as utensils, a glass or a tissue.

"Washing your hands will help you keep from spreading the virus and from coming down with it," Nang said.

You know the next preventive and treatment measures -- chances are, your mother told you.

To prevent: "Get plenty of exercise, plenty of rest, have a proper diet, and don't smoke," Nang said. Exercising strengthens your immune system. Some research shows that exercise stimulates specific cells of your immune system, he said. Sleeping increases your body's ability to fend off infection. Smoking impairs or damages your mucous membranes, which enable you to cough the virus up and out. A balanced diet, with the right mix of vitamins and minerals, also keeps your immune system strong and resistant to flu and colds.

To treat: The rules for prevention apply. Also drink plenty of fluids. The body combats infections better when you drink water and juices and eat or sip soup, Nang said. He noted that your body loses fluids when your appetite dwindles during colds or flu.

Winter temperatures also tend to create dry homes and offices, Nang said. "When you heat the air, you cause a decrease in the relative humidity, and that also dries up your mucous membranes." He recommended the use of humidifiers, especially in warm, dry rooms.

Aside from using common sense, household measures, Nang said, you might find some relief in over-the-counter medications that help prevent or treat cold and flu symptoms. For coughs, he recommended an expectorant -- a syrup or capsule that helps you maintain a healthy cough and discharge the infection.

"Coughing is the body's natural way of getting rid of offending viruses," he said. "So, unless it's getting to the point where the cough is too irritating, I wouldn't recommend suppressing it."

Medical literature seems to support the use of zinc lozenges and some of the other popular remedies receiving a lot of advertising these days. In fact, Nang said, he supports using most commercial remedies first, and then seeing a doctor if conditions persist or you develop a fever.

He's not as supportive of so-called "mega-dose" vitamins. It's better to have a balanced diet, he said, but regular vitamin supplements help if you're not able to eat properly. "But for mega-dose vitamins, like [large quantities of] C, there's no firm agreement one way or the other" from health experts, he said.

Preventing and treating flu and cold comes down to common sense, Nang said. Maintain good hygiene, exercise regularly, get sufficient sleep and get annual flu vaccinations. If you get sick, take approved over-the-counter and prescribed medicines, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid the get-well-quick schemes that dot the Internet and magazines without any medical endorsement.

And when you're in doubt or suffering beyond a few days, call your doctor.

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