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Flu in 2018: Your Most Pressing Questions Answered

Flu in 2018 - Dr. Axe

The flu in 2018 has been pretty intense, leaving a lot of people on edge and dreading the possibility of contracting this nasty viral illness. Some people are opting for the flu vaccine while others are sticking with natural prevention and natural flu remedies. Unfortunately, flu season is not over yet, so there’s a lot to discuss.

Recently, I received a lot of great questions the Dr. Axe Facebook concerning the current flu season and various prevention methods, as well as treatment options. (Oregano oil came up a lot). Are you ready to hear what some other experts have to say?


Flu in 2018: Facts About the Outbreak

Influenza, or flu, is a contagious respiratory infection caused by several flu virus strains that infect the nose, throat and lungs. It’s possible to get the flu any time of the year, but flu season typically occurs in the fall and winter. Flu typically hits peak numbers anywhere from the end of November through March.

Experts are comparing this year’s high and widespread case numbers to the peak flu season of 2014 to 2015.  What do those two flu seasons seem to have in common? A subtype of the influenza A virus known as H3N2 being the predominant strain responsible for most people’s illnesses. This is an especially terrible version of the flu linked to more hospitalizations and even deaths, which sadly we have already seen this year. (1)

Other strains causing illness this season include H1N1 (what caused the 2009 to 2010 swine flu pandemic but is now a regular human flu virus) and an influenza B strain.

According to the CDC, the flu has swept across the country with 49 out of 50 states experiencing widespread cases as of January 2018. The one and only state where it’s currently not widespread is Hawaii. Looking back over the past 15 flu seasons, this current season is the only time all states in the entire continental US have reported widespread flu activity during the same week. (2)

For this 2017 to 2018 flu season, the CDC’s recommendation is to get injectable flu shots, but not to use the nasal spray flu vaccine (LAIV). They also recommend a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older. (3) However, the CDC also points out that the flu vaccine is less effective against the strain we are dealing with this year, A(H3N2). (4) As experts have warned, this year’s flu shot may only be 10 percent effective. (5)

So far this flu season, the flu is blamed for the deaths of at least 30 children. There are also reports of flu-related deaths in adults in various locations around the country. As of late January 2018, the hospitalization rate for flu cases is at about 31.5 people per 100,000 U.S. residents. (6)


Your Flu Questions Answered!

Here, flu experts weigh in to answer your most pressing questions about the flu in 2018.

How long is the flu season expected to last this year?

As I mentioned, it’s possible to come down with a case of the flu any month of the year, but it’s most common in the fall and winter months. In the United States, November through March is typically when the peak of flu season is seen. (7)

This year’s flu season definitely began early, in October, and there was a sharp increase in cases in January following the holidays. In the past, the flu has typically struck different parts of the country at various times. Not this year. According to Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, MPH, Director of the CDC’s Influenza Division, two differences with this year’s flu season is that it hit almost all states at the same time and has stayed at that high level nationally for three consecutive weeks. (8)

According to Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, “this year and every year it will definitely last through February. It typically begins to wane in March so by the end of March/beginning of April, it should be back to baseline. Flu season started earlier this year so maybe it will be done a few weeks earlier. It depends on the part of the country, but you can still have cases well into March.”

Can pregnant women receive any licensed and age-appropriate flu vaccine? 

Getting the flu shot is a personal decision. For pregnant women wanting to do so, it is an option. Dr. Schaffner says that any of the licensed vaccines are safe and effective during pregnancy. He also adds, “It’s very important that pregnant woman before and during influenza season get vaccinated. It’s generally not appreciated that when pregnant women get influenza they have complication rates comparable to senior citizens. The good news is that they make protection and it crosses the placenta so that when the baby is born it has partial protection from the mother for several months. Once the baby is six months of age, it can get its own vaccine.”

If the flu vaccine is so helpful, why does it seem like flu symptoms are only getting worse as time goes on?

Dr. Victoria Maizes, executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a Professor of Medicine, Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Arizona, weighed in on this question:

“That’s actually not accurate. The worst flu season in history was in 1918, it was called the Spanish flu, and it was a very bad flu because the virus had mutated. It’s estimated that about 500 million people died worldwide during that pandemic. There was also a really bad flu in 1968 and about a million people died worldwide. In the U.S., we had a bad flu in 2014 and 56,000 people died. Then we’ve had a few milder years up until this flu season. So overall, the flu and flu symptoms haven’t gotten worse. As in 2014, we are currently dealing with a very dangerous strain of the flu known as H3N2, which our vaccines are just not very good against.”

Dr. Jernigan, Director of CDC’s Influenza Division, confirms that this year’s strain is truly the worst one we could be dealing with right now. He states,”Of the viruses we hate, we hate H3N2 more than the other ones.” (9)

How can a pregnant woman naturally protect herself from the flu?

Hand washing and getting enough rest are certainly two key ways to protect against the flu for pregnant women as well as the general population. As Dr. Maizes puts it, “With kids, we don’t have to worry about the sleep factor as much, most kids get enough sleep. However, many adults are sleep deprived.”

She also recommends taking probiotics and making soups with medicinal mushrooms like maitake, shiitake and reishi. She points out, “Food strategies are a great, safe way to prevent illness for pregnant women.” In addition, she says it’s important for a pregnant woman to do everything she can to avoid sick people.

Of course, a healthy pregnancy diet is absolutely key to warding off the flu and having a healthy pregnancy in general. A high-quality prenatal vitamin will contain the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals you need and this includes safe amounts of immune-boosting vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc. I also recommend supplementing with probiotics, which have been shown to have positive effects on pregnant women and unborn babies. Plus, probiotic foods and probiotic supplements are excellent for boosting the immune system. (10, 11)

Other natural ways to prevent the flu that are safe for pregnant women include staying well-hydrated, reducing stress and exercising regularly. (12)

What are some safe natural remedies for breastfeeding moms if they contract the flu?

As with pregnant women, Dr. Maizes strongly encourages using food strategies including medicinal mushrooms in soups, probiotics and garlic. She also highly recommends something called Magic Mineral Broth™ created by Rebecca Katz. Maizes says, “This magic mineral vegetable broth is really nourishing and prevents dehydration. Vitamin D is also a safe option for breastfeeding moms and there is some evidence that it has an immune-boosting effect.”

She also suggests sinus rinsing with a neti pot (or another preferred nasal irrigation system) as a safe and effective way to relieve congestion for pregnant and nursing women.

Julia A. Piwoz, MD, FAAP, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center, also recommends saline as a way to soothe flu symptoms in kids and adults in general. Dr. Piwoz notes: “You’d be surprised how helpful salt can be. Salt water (saline) can be used as a nose spray, or as a mist, or even to squirt up your nose to clean out your sinuses. Yup, people do it. And gargling with salt water can soothe a really sore throat.”

What are some of the best natural ways to prevent the flu in children?

According to Dr. Maizes: “It’s hard to prevent it in kids because they have a common problematic behavior which is to touch things and put their hands in their mouths. So you definitely want to teach them to wash their hands. If they are really young, and in a daycare, for example, you want to make sure toys and other objects are being properly disinfected.”

Dr. Piwoz also agrees that hand washing is huge when it comes to flu prevention in kids. She says, “Hand washing with soap and water or hand sanitizer is the best prevention along with common sense.”

Another great idea from Dr. Maizes: teaching your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow to prevent spreading germs. Also, limiting exposure to sick individuals as much as possible.

Dr. Maizes also shared some of the techniques she personally used as a mom: “I’m a big fan of food strategies. I love raw garlic. What I used to do with my kids is press fresh garlic and combine it with cream cheese. They didn’t have any dairy allergies and they loved it. You can also use elderberry extract with kids too. It’s yummy and you can get kids to take it pretty easily.”

She had two more excellent recommendations. The first is to give kids zinc lozenges at the first sign of illness. Of course, the child has to be old enough to handle a lozenge and not choke on it. The other recommendation, which we’ve seen proven by scientific research, is to use honey as a natural cough suppressant. (15) As Dr. Maizes says, “Most kids love it, just make sure they are over one year of age.”

If the flu vaccine is so helpful, why does it seem like people are having worse flu symptoms as time goes on?

“This year the dominant influenza strain causes more severe illness than the other flu viruses, so that is giving the impression, which is true, that we are having more severe cases of the flu with more complications. This year’s virus is a very bad virus,” says Dr. Schaffner.

If the purpose of the flu vaccine is to decrease the incidence and severity of the flu, why is the opposite happening?

This is a somewhat similar reader question to the question above. Dr. Maizes believes, “I don’t think the opposite is happening. I think it’s a bad flu season this year because of the particular strain of virus we’re dealing with, not because the vaccine is backfiring or making us sick, but rather that it’s not as good as we want it to be. The vaccine we currently have doesn’t work well for H3N2. Hopefully, we will develop vaccines that are more effective against H3N2 over time and hopefully, we’ll also have a vaccine that provides protection for more than one year.”

Is there a difference between oil of oregano, oregano oil, and essential oregano oil?

Oil of oregano, oregano essential oil, essential oregano oil, and oregano oil are four different ways that people are often describing the same thing — the oil extracted via steam distillation from fresh oregano (Oreganum vulgare) leaves.

However, even though these names can be used to describe the same thing, it doesn’t mean that all oregano oils are created equal. They definitely are not! When purchasing essential oil of oregano, always look for one that is 100% pure, certified USDA organic and therapeutic grade.

Can kids use oregano oil? If so, what is the best way for them to use it?

Oregano oil is not recommended for use by infants or small children. It is also considered toxic to pets. If you are interested in using oil of oregano with older children, speak to your pediatrician first.

In general, oregano oil should always be diluted before use whether it is being used externally or internally.

Since oregano oil is a natural antibiotic, does it deplete your body of the good bacteria? I take it daily since I have a weakened immune system and I don’t know if that is too much.

To date, there are no studies showing that oil of oregano kills off good bacteria. However, since oregano oil is such a potent natural remedy, it is best to use it for 10 days at a time and then cycle off for a least one week.

Can nursing mothers safely ingest oil of oregano?  

Oil of oregano is typically not recommended for breastfeeding or pregnant mothers unless otherwise instructed by a physician. Oregano oil should be avoided during pregnancy because it may cause embryotoxicity.

Can essential oils alter the effectiveness of antibiotics?

As you may know already, many essential oils are known for their antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral activity. (10) These are some of the main attributes of essential oils that can make them so helpful in times of illness.

Studies have demonstrated that combining essential oils with antibiotics can greatly lower the amount of antibiotics needed to be effective and also decrease unwanted antibiotic side effects including antibiotic resistance. (11, 12)

Check with your doctor before combining a particular antibiotic with essential oils.

Read Next: The Best Essential Oils for Colds, the Flu and Beyond


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