COLUMBUS’ Joyce Miller has never had a flu shot in her 69 years and rarely visits the doctor.
She opts instead for a healthy diet and mostly natural foods. And, if she feels the slightest fever, chills or related symptoms rising, she reaches for one thing: Oscillococcinum, a $14-per-box homeopathic medicine containing duck liver, which proponents claim will zap flu symptoms within a couple of days.
“I grew up believing in natural remedies,” Miller said, adding that her grandmother in Jasper lived to be 101 with almost no prescription or over-the-counter medicines. “I’ve always been on a health-food kick and eat as close to nature as I can.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cold and flu season officially began Sept. 30, although the number of cases reported nationally this year has been below average so far. But Miller already has her remedies, with Sambucol, an elderberry extract intended to support the immune system, at the ready.
Another popular over-the-counter supplement is Airborne, stuffed with 17 herbs and nutrients purported to boost the immune system and snuff out sniffles.
Others opt to fight the flu a more mainstream way. For the first time ever, Columbus Regional Hospital has mandated that its 1,700 employees get a flu shot, hospital spokeswoman Paige Harden, said.
Cindy Dunlevy, an infection preventionist at the hospital, has been getting annual flu shots since the early 1980s. The vaccine protects against the three flu viruses research indicates will cause the most illness during the upcoming season.
Flu vaccines — both the shot and the nasal spray — work by causing antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination, according to the CDC. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.
“I’ve got to practice what I preach,” Dunlevy said. “And a flu shot still is the best way to prevent the flu.”
Apparently, plenty of people nationwide share the views of both Miller and Dunlevy. According to a 2010 Consumer Reports National Research Center poll, supplement users were as likely as nonsupplement users to get a flu shot. More than one-third of supplement users got the flu vaccine two years ago.
And 62 percent planned to use prescription options such as oral capsules of Tamiflu, or over-the-counter treatments or both to protect themselves against the flu. Only 13 percent said they would use supplements, but no conventional medical treatments.
The CDC can’t predict how severe this flu season will be. However, the agency recommends that everyone 6 months old and older get vaccinated against influenza each year. More than 112 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccine already have been distributed by vaccine manufacturers in the United States this season and more are expected.
Dr. David Porter of Columbus’ Sandcrest Family Medicine recommends flu shots as the best defense and gets one himself every year. But he also preaches the basics: a healthy diet, exercise and plenty of rest, all of which build the immune system.
“With people who are very stressed out and not getting enough sleep, their immune system definitely is not as effective fighting off all kinds of things,” Porter said.
Columbus GNC vitamin and supplement shop owner Jason Atkins sees plenty of customers reach for supplements such as glutamine, an amino acid said to strengthen the immune system, as well as zinc, vitamin C and echinacea as preventive measures. Colloidal silver also is popular among customers for its reported benefits as an antiviral agent.
Family physicians such as Columbus’ Dr. Brian Niedbalski, Bartholomew County health officer, are careful to say no studies absolutely confirm that supplements shorten or stop colds or flu. But some physicians posting on webmd.com acknowledge that some studies do indeed show products such as echinacea effectively fight colds.
Atkins’ view on customers’ supplement purchases is basic: Why would they continue to spend money on something that doesn’t work?
Niedbalski said most of his patients asking about cold-and flu-related supplements inquire about zinc and vitamin C.
“I don’t think they’re doing any harm to themselves,” Niedbalski said. “But I still don’t think there’s ever been a good study showing that those supplements prevent cold or flu symptoms.
“And my main goal (with this) is to make sure they’re getting their flu vaccination.”
Mainstream and alternatives
To fight colds or the flu, people have a myriad of choices at doctor’s offices, drug stores and vitamin and supplement shops:
A traditional flu shot, from $20 to $32
- Homeopathic Oscillococcinum, about $14 for a two-day dose
- Sambucol, another alternative product, about $15 per bottle
- Colloidal silver, a supplement considered by some to be an antiviral agent, about $12 to $17 per bottle