By Teresa Liccardi, M.D.
The flu season is well upon us, and the national incidence of flu-like illness is still well above the epidemic threshold.
I would like to review the safety and efficacy of some of the therapies used for the flu and common cold.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), what are the three best methods for preventing the flu?
Get the flu vaccine.
Prevent the spread of germs, by covering your face if coughing or sneezing, washing your hands with soap and water and alcohol-based products and staying home for 24-48 hours when you are sick.
Using antivirals flu drugs when prescribed by your doctor.
Many of us, however, use alternative methods to fend off illnesses like the common cold and flu.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) utilizes nontraditional approaches such as botanicals, dietary supplements, mind-body practices and body manipulation. Tens of billions of dollars annually are spent on CAM. In 2007, 38 percent of adults and 12 percent of children used CAM for flu and cold prevention and remedy.
But how effective and how safe are these remedies for all the money spent on them? These are important questions especially because of the number of individuals using these therapies for themselves and children without medical knowledge or advice.
There is potential harm if one does not understand that:
Children are not small adults. Their organ systems are still developing and the manner by which they metabolize drugs may be different.
Purity, appropriate dosing, and strength of botanicals and dietary supplements vary even for the same remedy.
In 1999 the National Institute of Health (NIH), set up the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), in response to the growing number of individuals seeking information and using nonconventional practices to improve health, alleviate pain and improve general wellness. Information about NCCAM may be found at nccam.nih.gov.
CAM is an exciting field of medical therapeutics that has much to offer as it is researched and explored. Much of this field is relatively new and not well regulated; so before using products – especially with children – seek expert advice.
Even though, according to current evidence-based data, none of the following remedies aid in preventing or alleviating flu symptoms and duration they may have some role in helping prevent and reduce symptoms of the common cold. So here is the synopsis on the use of the most popular CAM remedies for the flu and common cold as discussed by NCCAM:
Zinc: Taken in the first 24 hours of symptoms, oral zinc may reduce the length and severity of the common cold. In children taken in low doses for 5 months zinc may reduce the incidence of the common cold, but appropriate dosing has not been established. Zinc has side effects. Zinc can cause nausea and diarrhea, interfere with absorption of other essential metals such as copper and interact with other drugs including antibiotics. Nasal zinc has been linked to anosmia, the loss of the sense of smell.
Vitamin C: When taken regularly in moderate doses (200 mg /day), vitamin C may reduce the incidence and severity of the common cold. Taking vitamin C only at the time of a cold does not appear to reduce or shorten illness. In high doses vitamin C can cause nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
Echinacea: There is no conclusive evidence that this remedy benefits those with the common cold or flu. It has been linked to skin rashes.
Probiotics: These products have not been found to be helpful for the common cold or flu either. In those with underlying health conditions, probiotics may cause other detrimental health consequences. Beneficial uses of probiotics may be found at the NCCAM website.
A more detailed explanation of these and more CAM remedies for the flu and common cold may be found at nccam.nih.gov/health/flu/ataglance.htm.
And what about the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) especially in children?
These medications are prescribed and purchased as over-the-counter products. They are used for headaches, arthralgias, muscle aches and the reduction of fever – all symptoms associated with the flu and common cold. These drugs interact physiologically with hormonal systems of the kidney, which in combination with other drugs, and/or high doses and continuous long-term use, may cause kidney damage.
Discuss CAM and all medications you are using for flu-like illnesses with a qualified medical professional so that we integrate all of these medical practices for our families’ well-being and ours.
There is Grandma’s chicken soup which research is demonstrating may boost the immune system.
Dr. Teresa Liccardi, who is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology, maintains a clinic for hypertension and chronic kidney disease at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank.
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