It’s everywhere. On every news channel. Lurking in subways and airports. Creeping into the office. Keeping your kids from going to school. And to your utter horror, it’s now followed you on your vacation. You just can’t escape it: The. Flu.
We sought out the advice of Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of the free popular iPhone & Android application “Cures A-Z,” and of the best-selling book From Fatigued to Fantastic!, to get his tips for fighting back infection during flu season.
Dr. Teitelbaum advises how you can stay healthy -- healthy enough to take that vacation you’ve been looking forward to, the trip that’s supposed to be your prescription for the winter doldrums (another affliction going around this season).
Good news? Dr. Teitelbaum’s advice involves not panicking, soaking up plenty of sunshine and -- get this -- even enjoying a little dark chocolate. Take that, Flu!
Here are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Teitelbaum on how travelers can stay flu-free this season:
Q. What's different about this year's flu season? Why should travelers take note?
A. Certainly, this year’s flu can hit a bit harder, especially for those with a chronic illness. But overall, I don’t see this year’s flu as being any more alarming than years past. Every flu season will be different; flu bugs grow and evolve just like we do. The upside is that this year’s flu vaccine is fairly effective, not 100%, but effective.
Q. How do you know you have the flu and not just a cold?
A. With the flu you have a higher fever and widespread, body-wide aches, whereas with a cold it’s more centered around the respiratory area -- throat and nose. With the flu, you are aching all over -- that is the distinction.
Q. How do you know when you are too sick to travel?
A. By the time you are asking that question, you already are. Do yourself -- and the people around you -- a favor, and stay home.
Q. Should I get a flu vaccine? Will it protect me from this year’s flu? And should I get the vaccine right before I travel?
A. You do want to get the flu vaccine, but a week or two ideally before you travel. The longer you take it before a trip, the longer the time your body has to build the immunity. Also, you want to be sure you are taking zinc -- that is critical for the vaccine to take hold. I suggest 15 to 25 milligrams of zinc before and after you get the vaccine.
Q. Will the vaccine given in the US protect me in other parts of the world?
A. Yes, it’s the same flu that travels around the world.
Q. If I’m abroad and I think I have the flu, what should I do?
A. You should do the same thing you would do at home -- go to bed. Drink warm fluids to flush and wash out the virus. I recommend zinc throat lozenges -- 20 milligrams, 4 times a day. Zinc stimulates immune systems.
Q. What should travelers carry with them during flu season?
A. No. 1 -- Zinc lozenges. (I carry them in my personal travel kit.) No. 2 -- ProBoost, a little hard to find, but I recommend it in everyone’s travel kit. It helps makes a hormone that stimulates immunity; it knocks out any bug you may have picked up within 24 hours. No. 3 -- Vitamin C for prevention. Emergen-C packets are great; they provide a high dose of Vitamin C, but without the juice. Lots of sugar in juice will suppress your immune system.
Q. How can travelers avoid getting sick when flying -- is there anything you can do to protect yourself if you're on a plane with a bunch of coughing/sneezing passengers?
A. Stay hydrated is the No. 1 thing to do. No. 2, turn off the overhead air jets. I tend to turn off air jets above my seat (and if I can, I turn all of them off in my row). It can’t be a good idea to have all those germs blowing around.
Q. What are the No. 1 places where a traveler can pick up the flu?
A. Places where people are putting their hands, like doorknobs and handrails. The main way the flu is spread is with people sneezing into their hands and then touching a doorknob. The flu is spread hand-to-mouth, mouth-to-hand. Wash hands after being in public places. And avoid touching your mouth while traveling.
Q. Things like subway cars and planes are incubators for germs -- is it an overreaction to wear a mask while in these locations?
A. I think so. The Japanese are so used to being in close settings [so it’s more understandable why they wear surgical masks in public], but I think here it’s an overreaction. If you have the plague going around, now that’s a different story. There’s more of a reason to wear a mask if you have something contagious versus if you’re simply trying to prevent yourself from catching something. Don’t have a mask? Cough into your elbow. You won’t touch too many doorknobs with your elbows.
Q. What foods and/or changes to your diet do you recommend to boost your immune system around and during your time of travel?
A. Simply avoiding excess sugar is the main thing -- avoiding sodas and juices. One can of cola suppresses your immune system by 30% for 3 hours. A to-die-for dessert is worth the sugar, not a can of soda.
Q. We know it's important to wash our hands -- what else?
A. Prevention -- get your sleep. Quickest way to suppress your immune system is to sleep-deprive a person. Get good sleep. In fact, I love red-eye flights; I am asleep on the plane by the time it takes off and I’m awake when the wheels hit the tarmac. Melatonin helps you sleep and helps with jet lag, too. I set my clock to my arrival time [on red eyes], then when I wake up I see that time and my body sees that time.
Q. What do you do if you get the flu while you’re traveling?
A. If you find yourself with a rip-roaring bug, I find, personally, that's when my body's saying it is time for a rest. It’s your body’s way of saying you need a time-out. So honor that. Do your thing and then go to bed … do what must be done, then go to bed and rest.
Q. Is it true you give your kids dark chocolate when they are sick?
A. Yes. Dark chocolate is effective for suppressing persistent coughs, as effective as codeine.
Q. You live in the Aloha State; how do Hawaiians stay healthy?
A. No. 1 way? We get plenty of sunshine. Vitamin D is critical for immune system and health. The advice to avoid sunshine should be in the Hall of Medical Shame. Avoid sunburn, not sunshine! If you get sunshine, your body will avoid infections better.
Q. Any last recommendations?
A. Don’t panic. Understand that the news media will try to scare you about everything. The world is still a pretty safe place. And the things that are most effective [to fight the flu] are natural -- and free.