With the whole world laser focused on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to forget that we’re entering another flu season this month. But the seasonal flu is nothing to sneeze at. Notwithstanding the severity of COVID-19, influenza remains a significant health concern that sickens many and claims numerous lives each year.
“Flu can be a devastating disease, especially for those with underlying health conditions,” explains Mercy Health family physician Jeffery Swartz, MD. “People who are obese are particularly vulnerable to the flu because obesity compromises the immune system. Comorbidities such as congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also predispose people to serious flu complications.”
Both COVID-19 and influenza are respiratory ailments that commonly cause symptoms such as coughing, fever, and body aches. However, these two viruses are actually quite different from one another. Dr. Swartz notes that with COVID-19, patients may exhibit somewhat strange symptoms in addition to those it shares with the flu, for example loss of taste and smell and/or blue coloration in the toes or extremities due to problems with platelet aggregation.
Having served for many years as a family physician with an emphasis on sports medicine, Dr. Swartz has recently shifted to an integrative, whole-health approach to care. “We combine elements of traditional medicine with other evidence-based treatments, such as the use of supplements in cancer patients, which has shown pretty good results,” he says.
Rather than react to a disease or disorder after it develops, Dr. Swartz prefers to take a proactive approach—reducing risk in order to prevent disease and prolong his patients’ longevity.
When it comes to preventing the flu, COVID, or other viral illnesses that are out there and equally dangerous, several lifestyle factors come into play. Dr. Swartz notes, for example, that the standard American diet lacks many of the vital nutrients that help fight off infection, such as polyphenols and polyflavonoids, so improving one’s diet is a major step in the right direction. Exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and addressing issues with mental health can also help strengthen immune function.
From the standpoint of supplements, Dr. Swartz emphasizes the importance of maintaining an appropriate level of vitamin D in warding off viral infection. “Medscape reports that taking 10,000 units of vitamin D daily for three days at the first sign of symptoms can help reduce viral symptoms by roughly 75 percent. We also use elderberry and zinc together to help fight off symptoms and treat infection. In fact, we use about 10 different supplements in our practice and are looking at others,” he adds.
Dr. Swartz is also hopeful that the universal precautions we’re all taking in response to COVID—masking, handwashing, and social distancing—will be helpful in reducing exposure to influenza as well.
In addition to taking appropriate precautions and making healthy lifestyle choices, it’s important to get a flu vaccine on an annual basis. Each year’s vaccine contains the strains that health experts believe are most likely to be circulating and causing illness during the upcoming flu season. Of course, the effectiveness of the vaccine in any given flu season depends on how well the included strains match up to those that are actually circulating, which is why the flu shot may be, say, only 40 percent effective one year but 70 percent effective the next.
Also, despite common misconception, there is little risk of contracting influenza from the vaccine itself. Nor is there any scientific basis to the fear that getting a flu shot makes one more vulnerable to COVID-19. “On the other hand, if you don’t get vaccinated, there is a possibility that you could get influenza and then pick up COVID on top of it. That’s why it’s so important to protect yourself and give your body what it needs to build immunity and fight off these viral infections. You can achieve that with healthy living and a whole-health approach to medical care,” Dr. Swartz advises.
For more information or to find a doctor, visit www.mercy.com/primarycare.