Colds and flu

Updated 11 July 2014

Putting the 'you' into fighting the flu

This year it’s personal, which is why it’s time for a complete change of mindset and a radical re-think of what to do if you do get the flu.


Rehashing the same old stuff about the influenza virus is not going to work this year, when once again the flu's headlines are tinged with panic. But this time round it's not the Swine Flu that's got people running scared- it’s the lack of flu vaccines. With winter now upon us – the flu's breeding ground – it's a waste of time pointing fingers and asking why.

The fact is there's been a dire shortage of flu vaccines in South Africa this year and what little stock we did have has now dried up. So it really doesn't matter who got what and who didn't- the bottom line is, they’re gone. With so many more people now at risk having missed out on their annual flu jab, and with so many possible 'bug carrying' foreigners flocking to our shores with the Soccer World Cup, chances are you, and the people around you, could well be in the firing line. Never before has your health- and that of your audience- been in your hands.

This year it’s personal, which is why it’s time for a complete change of mindset and a radical re-think of what to do if you do get the flu. With Europe and America already embracing a whole new approach when it comes to modern medicine, the question remains: are you up to the challenge?

Three things everyone needs to understand about the flu right now

  • If you think you’ve got the flu and you’re still running around as usual- you haven’t. The flu isn’t just a ‘bad’ cold – it’s a very debilitating respiratory infection that can totally floor you. There’s a very big difference between the common cold and the flu. Not only are they caused by different viruses, but the severity and speed of the onset of symptoms clearly set them apart.  Flu symptoms usually come on quickly (within 3-6 hours) and consist of a fever - frequently with chills-, headache, muscle pain and a dry, hacking cough. Cold symptoms develop slowly, are not as severe and include a stuffy nose, cough, slight tiredness, and limited body aches. The flu is highly contagious, spreads very quickly and you can deteriorate quite rapidly, which is why it should never be taken lightly no matter how tough you think you are. Flu in itself is not life-threatening, but many of its complications are. Left untreated it can lead to sinus and ear infections as well as bronchitis and pneumonia, which may result in hospitalization and, in some cases, even death.
  • The flu vaccine is the first line of defence against this potentially lethal virus. Many people choose to go this route especially those who are at high risk of developing flu complications: anyone over 65, children under the age of 5 and people living with a chronic condition: respiratory disease e.g. asthma and COPD; cardiovascular disease e.g. high blood pressure, previous heart attacks and strokes; diabetes, kidney disease or conditions that compromise their immune systems like HIV/AIDS and cancer.The flu vaccine shortage means that many of these people are now at even higher risk of developing flu and its serious complications, which may result in a deterioration of their chronic condition, often with serious consequences. 
  • Once you have the flu there’s nothing you can do to stop its progression or to get rid of the virus. It’s there to stay until its run its course- the duration depending on the severity of symptoms and whether you develop any complications.

So now what?

Prevention is always better than cure, so practicing good hygiene is a given. Because the flu is passed from person to person via airborne droplets (coughing or sneezing) or from contaminated surfaces, regular hand washing, coughing and sneezing into a tissue and throwing it away etc, should become routine. Then, especially if you fall into the high risk group mentioned above, you should consider having the pneumoccocal vaccine.

Although it offers no protection against the flu virus, it willprotect you from about 90% of the bacteria strains that cause the flu’s major complications- bronchitis and/or pneumonia. If you haven’t had a pneumococcal shot in the last few years now’s the time to chat to your doctor or pharmacist about having one. It’s the ideal route to go for anyone who falls into the ‘high risk’ category, as it will certainly reduce your chances of becoming seriously ill this winter.

If you do happen to get pneumonia/bronchitis after having this vaccine, it’s likely to be one of the lesser strains so your illness will be far shorter and far less severe.

Treat the symptoms

There’s no magic cure for the flu – once you get it you’ve simply got to see it through. What’s important is bed rest- while you take the time to recover you won’t be infecting others-, staying well hydrated, and giving your usual exercise routine a miss (exercising will compromise your immune system even further and put your body under more stress). You should also treat the symptoms and try to limit the virus’ debilitating effects.  

What are the options?

Over the Counter (OTC) medications

Just because OTC medicines are freely available on supermarket and pharmacy shelves, this doesn’t always mean they’re completely safe. Consider this: whether cough mixture or throat lozenge or all-in-one flu remedy, many of these only treat limited symptoms which is why you often leave the store with a whole range of products to treat your headache, your blocked nose, your muscular aches and pains and your fever.

Although they all may contain different substances, most do contain codeine and some contain antihistamines or muscle relaxants or painkillers so you may end up not only inadvertently overdosing which could be downright dangerous, but with uncomfortable side effects (constipation or an irritated gut). Furthermore they may also be contra-indicated with other medication you may be taking eg chronic medication, which could cause additional problems.   

Natural products

Once again, just because something is ‘natural’ it doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe which is why it’s important to make sure that the product you use is both well researched and tried and tested. This includes the neutriceutical, herbal and homoeopathic remedies, all of which are rapidly growing in popularity around the world.

For many years in South Africa, these have been completely polarised, forming part of the so-called ‘alternative’ medicine world or, more recently, ‘complementary’ medicine. However internationally, the move these days is towards an integrated medicine system where allopathic and homoeopathic practitioners work hand in hand. It’s now slowly taking place in our country with more and more medical practitioners from either side crossing the line and accepting that there are merits in both forms of medical practice when it comes to patients’ health.  

But isn’t homoeopathy just all hocus-pocus?

Absolutely not. It’s a centuries-old science that was formulated by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, in 1796. It’s based on his observation that substances that are capable of causing diseases of the mind or body in healthy people can be used in a highly diluted form as remedies to treat the similar disorder in someone who is ill. This is also expressed as ‘Let Like be Cured by Like’ or the principle of similars, an idea that can be traced back to Hippocrates.

Homoeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals and are not known to interfere with conventional drugs. However, if you are considering using homoeopathic remedies, you should always discuss this with your medical practitioner.

Is this the route to go this year to fight the flu?

Without doubt, although it may require a radical change of mindset if you’ve never really ventured out of the conventional medicine world. Oscillococcinum is a good example of a homoeopathic medicine that’s regularly and successfully prescribed by homoeopathic and allopathic practitioners internationally for flu and flu like symptoms- and, given our current circumstances, it should be your very first choice at the very first sign of flu symptoms.

For every conventional ‘expert’ that dismisses it or pooh-poohs its efficacy, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the globe who are completely sold on the product. It’s used in more than 50 countries worldwide and ranks as the number one OTC flu medicine in France where it’s been in production for 65 years. It’s also the leading flu product in the Netherlands, ranks number 2 in Russia, and is the top seller in natural supermarkets and drug stores across America. Made by Boiron, one of the world’s largest homoeopathic companies based in Lyon, France, Oscillococcinum has the FDA’s official stamp of approval as a regulated drug.

In keeping with the homoeopathic principle of like curing like, the main ingredient of Oscillococcinum is an extract made from the reservoirs of the flu viruses, and its claims to shorten the duration of flu and reduce symptoms is well-supported by clinical research. It’s completely safe for adults and children alike and won’t interact with any other prescribed medication you may be taking.

According to stats, the flu is the second leading cause of death in South Africa, after TB. With your health in your hands right now, and the flu on your doorstep, can you really afford not to give Oscillococcinum a chance?  

Q & As

Q: Is Oscillococcinum a good alternative to having the flu jab?

A: No. It’s regarded as a therapeutic tool to fight the flu, not a replacement for the flu vaccine. You can safely use it whether you’ve had the vaccine or not, and should take at the first sign of symptoms - fever, body aches, headache and cough. You can also safely use it together with any other medication to treat flu symptoms, eg an analgesic for that headache or cough syrup. 

Q: What scientific backing has Oscillococcinum got?

A: Over the years, many double-blind placebo controlled clinical studies have shown that it helps reduce both the duration and severity of flu symptoms. Plus, millions of people around the world swear by its efficacy.

Q: Can it be taken prophylactically?

A:  Yes, one dose (one vial) a week can be safely taken throughout the winter season. Consumer studies show that about 30% of current Oscillococcinum users take the medicine as a preventative measure.

Q: The sweet tasting granules indicate the use of sugar. Is this safe for people who have diabetes?

A: Oscillococcinum granules have a lactose basewhich is a milk sugar and is therefore completely safe for anyone who has diabetes.

Q: How do you pronounce Oscillococcinum?

A: Oh-sill-oh-cox-see-num. Or just say Oscillo for short.

Q: My understanding is that true homoeopathic treatment is individually prescribed, based on things like the cause, where and when pain occurs, what makes it better or worse and whether there are any other symptoms. Yet Oscillococcinum seems to be a one-size-fits-all?

A: Yes, homoeopaths do prescribe individual prescriptions but in homoeopathy there are certain medicines that are considered specific for certain conditions. Oscillococcinum is one of them, working very effectively when it comes to treating flu and flu like symptoms. So it IS a one-size-fits-all medication, especially since it’s quite safe for the whole family- adults and children alike.

Q: Why is homoeopathy often dismissed and criticized?

A: It all boils down to scientific evidence, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Homoeopathy remains controversial because many of its key concepts aren’t consistent with established laws of science (especially chemistry and physics). But the fact is that patients do get better from homoeopathic medicine and this in itself should be evidence enough. Yet this is often regarded as purely observational or anecdotal and is not concrete enough for many of its critics. Oscillococcinum, however, is scientifically backed and its millions of users speak for themselves. 

Q: Is it OK to go it alone when it comes to the flu?

A: The reason that flu is considered potentially dangerous is that it leaves your body vulnerable to other infections like bronchitis and pneumonia. Generally speaking homoeopathic medicine is one of the safest choices for self-treatment as it doesn’t interfere with other medications or “mask” symptoms that may indicate a more serious condition. When it comes to the flu, Oscillococcinum is the perfect choice at the onset of symptoms but if they continue to deteriorate and become more severe it’s important to seek immediate medical attention.

Q: How much progress is being made when it comes to homoeopaths and conventional medical practitioners working towards an integrated health system in South Africa today?

A: Most qualified, trained Homoeopaths respect the vital role of conventional, allopathic medicine in the treatment and prevention of disease and do not offer homoeopathic treatment as a replacement or alternative. In fact when conventional medicine is indicated, Homoeopaths do encourage an integrated approach to health. Likewise more and more allopathic practitioners are seeing the advantage of incorporating complementary therapy into treating their patients eg using reflexology and acupuncture- and a trend is emerging where many practitioners from both branches of medicine now work side by side in integrative medical centres around the country.

Q: What’s the correct way to spell Homoeopathy- HomEO or HomOEO?

A: According to the Homoeopathic Association of South Africa (HSA) homoeopathy should be spelt HomOEOpathy. For some reason even some of our qualified Homoeopaths forget that there are three O’s- it’s time for you to put things right!

(Information supplied by Oz Healthcare Communications)

June 2010


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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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