Are we really helpless in the face of the flu?

Talk has started about the risks of the flu again this winter. In an article about that year’s influenza season possibly being a bad one, Ian Barr, acting director of the WHO’s influenza centre at the Doherty Institute (Melbourne), was quoted as saying that when it comes to avoiding catching the flu there are a few measures people could take: “Move to a solitary location in the middle of the desert, stay away from everyone and lock yourself in a house…Or more practically you can get yourself vaccinated.” But are we really as helpless as this implies? Why do some people hardly ever get the flu and others get it regularly? Could lifestyle choices and pressures play a part in why some of us are more vulnerable? Is there anything we can do to stay healthy enough to not succumb to illness from the presence of viruses in our bodies?
The following reminders may not guarantee that you and your children won’t get flu but they may help you get a less severe dose and recover more completely if you do.
Healthy living habits

Firstly there are the usual ‘Live healthily’ factors: sufficient sleep (8 hours plus), nutritious food, regular physical activity, keep to a healthy weight, reduce your stress; and minimize processed food, alcohol and smoking. Don’t underestimate the positive effects these have on your immune system.

But there are also other things you can do with your family to stay healthy.
Stay warm!

Warmth is important for emotional well being and mental and physical health. Viruses can take hold more easily when you are cold—hence the body’s response to fighting a virus is a rise in temperature. Insist on your family dressing warmly and be prepared to pay more for heating bills. Remember young children cannot accurately assess how warm they are for themselves.

Do things that make you feel more alive!

Enlivening activities prime your immune system as they make you feel good: smile more, laugh more, breathe deeply, sing, be creative, be more playful, do good things for other people, be good hearted. Studies have shown these things support health.

Watch your attitudes and fears.

My grandmother told her children; “We don’t have to be like other families. We don’t have to get the flu!” Many health campaigns use fear as motivation, yet fear can undermine health. Advice on avoiding flu normally focuses on minimizing contact with germs. It also helpful to remember that if your immune system is healthy it can build up immunity so that these germs may not be a problem for you, if you do come into contact with them. It is more helpful to be well informed and self-aware, not fearful.

Recognise times when extra help is needed.

There are times when life is just unavoidably over-demanding. Give yourself and your children permission to have a day off sometimes without having to be sick first. There are also times when an extra boost for the immune system from something extra—like garlic, Vitamin C, spices, herbs, supplements—may help.

Know when to stop.

If you do feel something coming on, perhaps when your body feels especially tired or when you feel the first tickle in the throat, take it as a message to stop and care for yourself. I knew a teacher who had an agreement with her headmaster that she could take an ‘antibiotic day’ if she felt herself becoming unwell. She would go skiing and come back to work next day rejuvenated, while the rest of the staff ‘soldiered on’ but finally succumbed to the flu and had to take a week or more off! Stopping sooner is sensible living and working. Children often seem unreasonably cranky at such a time—try to recognise the signs and take action quickly to reduce stimulation, increase sleep etc.

If you or your children do get sick, take the time to recover fully.

Secondary infections and lingering symptoms often occur because we go back to work or send the children back to child care or school too soon. Be generous with time here. It is worth it in the long run.

Stay well!


*The Age Melbourne, June 6, 2015 p3