It’s Flu Season… How to stay healthy this winter

I am sitting at Shoppers Drug Mart with my arm in the blood pressure machine waiting for the pharmacist. I barely have time to take my BP (it’s a nice 118/66 even after a strong coffee half an hour ago) when the pharmacist motions me to come in; she’s ready. And five minutes later I’m out the door on the way to the office on a cool, rainy fall morning. I’ve had my flu shot and the whole, painless process took less than 15 minutes.

A few minutes later, while riding to work, I have memories of growing up in Winnipeg. I was born just after the first polio vaccine was discovered. My parents told us how overjoyed they were when the original vaccine came out. Polio had been an annual, terrifying scourge, leaving people dead and maimed. I thought of the girl just two years older than me who lived down the street: she walked with crutches and both legs in braces. And then of a teacher in my elementary school rolling the hallways and teaching from his wheelchair. There were others “crippled”—as they used to say– in the immediate few blocks around us.

We live in an era and in a part of the world where most epidemic diseases are distant memories and no longer a threat. Society two generations ago was motivated by war, depression and the immediate threat of disease. There was collective effort to improve our lot. The greatest advance in health care was the reduction of communicable diseases. Much of this was achieved through near universal vaccination.

Today, however, fewer than 40% of adults in BC typically get the flu shot. Most of the other 60% think they don’t need it because they are healthy and anyway, “it’s just the flu”.


I’ve had influenze at least twice in my life, and it is a pretty severe illness. I first got it in high school. I was a healthy, strong seventeen-year-old and I still missed over a week of classes. I could barely climb the stairs for another two weeks after that. The illness was memorable for its symptoms of severe chills (signs of a fever” spike”), muscle and bone pain, and weeks of painful coughing afterwards. I had it again when I was pretty new in practice. The only time I have ever missed a day of elective surgery (I had a complex facelift booked) was because of the flu.

When people refer to a runny nose, sneezing and a mild cough as having “the flu” they are mistaken. Many viruses are capable of producing those symptoms, and the flu shot does not protect against them. But the group of Influenza viruses, especially Influenza A viruses, cause severe illness and even death. It is widely reported that the Spanish flu killed more people in WW I than bullets. Even today, with all our modern therapies for respiratory illnesses, Influenza kills.

According to Dr. Meena Dawar, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, “We know how [vaccines] work, we know how they protect, and we know their side effects,” which, in a small proportion of people, include a sore arm and muscle aches and pain…Severe allergic reactions are rare at one in a million and flu shots do not use a live vaccine, so they cannot cause influenza.” (Vancouver Sun Sept 30).

When 90% or more of a population is vaccinated, the diseases don’t get enough of a foothold in the community to get started and to spread. Vaccination becomes protective for all of us, as a society. If we act together, it benefits all of us.

As for other “winter” illnesses, there are ways of reducing your chances of getting a bad cold or pneumonia:

  • There is some, although weak, scientific evidence taking higher doses of daily Vitamin D (2000- 4000 IU) is beneficial. This may be why the longstanding folk preventive of Cod Liver Oil worked. The evidence in the scientific world isn’t strong, my personal experience with 4000units of Vitamin D has been far fewer colds and much faster recovery when I do actually get sick. I take it in an oil, 1000units per drop. I have a theory it is more effective that way. The Vitamin D directly coats the membranes of your upper respiratory system, and the immune cells in your throat are better able to attack invading bugs. This is strictly what scientists call “anecdotal evidence”.
  • Winter changes the environment in our houses and building where we live and work. On the one hand, Molds and fungus multiply in the fall when leaves and other organic debris is decomposing, and this accelerates when the rains come. On the other hand, heated air often is drier and sometimes a humidity control is preventive. Healthy levels of humidity may help the mucous membranes resist invaders like viruses.
  • Penicillin and other antibiotics used to be very effective against certain bacteria that cause the most common bacterial pneumonias (pneumococci) but resistance is increasingly common. There are now some effective vaccines for pneumococci. I’m looking seriously at getting this. If you want to read more, perhaps start here:

Viruses are transmitted from person to person indoors and crowding causes respiratory outbreaks. We know this from experience from the 1800s with Tuberculosis (TB). We generally shed (give off) viruses the most just before we start having any symptoms, so people are giving off viruses all around us through the winter, without knowing it. We get sick more often in winter because we are indoors, closer to each other.

I think going to the gym regularly can have great value, but I think gyms can be a place for viruses to be shared easily. Think hygiene if you are going to a gym, wiping equipment before and after you use it, thinking of those who have used it before you and will after you. Don’t use a gym whose air conditioning system is not regularly and thoroughly maintained.

I also believe we need to “ventilate” our lungs. Those of you who have been following this blog know I am a big believer in getting outdoors all winter long, for vigorous exercise.

I saw this on a billboard this morning:

It is snowing in the mountains. I’m excited.

What I’m eating:

Well, the turkey is finally gone, after all the variations. Tonight it’s squash soup.

Lots of mushrooms. Mushrooms added to braises, mushroom soup. Mushroom omelets. Etc. I haven’t yet been out foraging for chanterelles, but I expect they are showing with all the rain we have had.

For Exercise:

I’m still riding my bike nearly every day, and swimming two to three times a week. I’m starting to do sport specific training for the coming ski season.

Dr. Gelfant’s Living Beautifully Blog

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