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It's that time of year again—the cold and flu season—when millions of people run to their medicine cabinets for relief.
Despite what many people think, antibiotics do not get rid of a cold or flu. Colds and flu are viral infections. Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections. However, antibiotics may be needed if you develop a secondary bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection or upper respiratory infection.
The Mayo Clinic, in its February 1998 Mayo Clinic Health Letter, wrote, "the physical stress of a cold, the flu or especially a bacterial illness can cause your body to produce hormones that prevent insulin from working properly. During such times, it is important to continue to take your diabetes medication as scheduled and monitor blood glucose frequently."
Prevention Is Key
Prevention is definitely the best way to avoid the flu and colds. Frequent handwashing, sanitizing telephone handsets, dishes and silverware, and staying away from sick people are recommended. If you or someone in your immediate family has diabetes, however, it is very important for all of you to get a flu shot every fall, and a pneumonia shot about every 10 years.
Why a Flu Shot?
People with diabetes are three times more likely to die and six times more likely to be hospitalized from the flu and its complications than people without diabetes. That's pretty sad when you consider a simple $10 shot can, literally, prevent all of this. Furthermore, if you have Medicare it won't cost you a cent.
Anti-viral medications are the second line of defense if you did not get your flu shot in time to prevent the flu. Phil Ryan, MD, an Indianapolis endocrinologist recommends that his patients always have prescription anti-viral drugs already filled and over-the-counter drugs already purchased just in case, especially when traveling.
"Rapid, early treatment is the only way to fight colds and flu," he says. "Once viruses have a 48-hour head start, it's too late."
Prescription Drug Options
The prescription drug Relenza (an aerosol powder, which is inhaled twice per day) works if taken within the first 12 hours of exposure. It reduces the ability of the virus to replicate and infect healthy tissue. It reduces flu symptoms by about two days. People with asthma should not use Relenza because it can cause even more irritation to the bronchial system.
Tamiflu, another prescription medication, must be taken orally within first 48 hours of exposure. The problem is the flu virus has an incubation period of one to five days, and symptoms do not become obvious until after that time. So be aware of people around you, especially children and co-workers who may have exposed you to the virus. If you start to have a slight fever, a tickle in the throat and general malaise, call your doctor.
Amantadine and Flumadine are prescription meds, which can also be effective anti-virals. According to Val Berger, RPH, clinical services manager of Indiana's Marsh Pharmacies, they act as viral terminators and cause the virus to stop replicating. A person needs to take them for seven to 10 days.
Beware of "Sugar-free" Lozenges
Almost all lozenges labeled as "sugar-free" actually have sugar in some form, such as sorbitol, dextrose, fructose or lactose. In addition, some contain benzocaine to numb your sore throat and menthol to provide a little breathing relief.
People with diabetes, no matter what the cold or flu medication, should always read labels. Look for those dastardly "-ols" and "-oses" because they are sugar, just in different form. Most of them are slower acting, but they are still sugar.
Hall's has a "sugar-free" lozenge with isomalt, which, if used in small quantities, is considered sugar-free. Ten lozenges, however, equals one fruit exchange.
What About Vitamins and Herbal Remedies?
Zinc is vital to a healthy immune system and promotes healing. Vitamin C changes pH levels in your body, disrupting the balance in your blood and intestines, so viruses cannot flourish. No more than 250 milligrams of vitamin C per day is necessary.
"If you take more than this, the excess spills into the urine and you simply have very expensive urine," says Berger.
Many people swear by herbal remedies such as Echinacea. Research suggests that certain components in Echinacea may indeed help to fight certain illnesses like the common cold and flu. No large-scale studies, however, have been performed to confirm the effectiveness of Echinacea in fighting infection.
If you use herbals, read the labels for the hidden sugars and make sure you tell your doctor and pharmacist so you can be sure there are no drug interactions with the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are using.
Never stop taking your prescribed medications in exchange for herbals. Use herbals as a complimentary medicine.
Arm Yourself Early!
Don't wait until symptoms occur to arm yourself. Talk to your doctor now, and get the prescriptions you will need, as well as the over-the-counter drugs. This way, you can start treatment the minute your doctor advises—regardless of where in the world you may be at the time a virus strikes.
People with diabetes should also have a "sick day plan." A viral or bacterial infection will elevate your blood sugar automatically, so you may need to test more often and adjust food or insulin as necessary.
Continue to take your medications and/or insulin. The fever you get is the body's way of killing the virus. Bacteria and viruses cannot live in high-heat environments, which is why the body pours on the fever as a defense mechanism. So stay warm, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and don't stop eating. Good nutrition will help you fight anything.