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Flu Shot Scare Fuels Scams

Fearful of the flu virus, people are turning to anything and everything.
WebMD Feature

No flu shot for you? Don't panic. Vitamins, herbs, walnuts, and raw garlic can ward off the flu virus, some say. A few chiropractors even promise to boost immunity with an adjustment.

But what works? Very little of it, doctors say. In fact, "people who trade on other people's misery and fear are charlatans," Bennett Lorber, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, tells WebMD.

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Prescriptions: When it comes to flu virus protection, only the flu shot and FluMist actually work. "FluMist [the inhaled vaccine] is very good protection, as much as the shot ... but FluMist is in short supply this year, too," says Gio Baracco, MD, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

The antiviral medicines - amantadine, rimantadine, Tamiflu, and Relenza - can shorten a bout with the flu, making symptoms go away quicker; they may even prevent the flu if taken early on.

However, even though the antiviral medicines may help you feel better, you can still infect other people until the drug has taken full effect. You'll be up, going to work or daycare, yet spreading the flu virus to others.

Supplements: People swear by supplements and herbs -- like echinacea, zinc, garlic, ginseng, and large doses of vitamin C -- to strengthen the immune system. But most doctors have trouble taking it seriously.

"To my knowledge, none of these has been shown to work very well for prevention," says Baracco. "And once you're sick, they really make no difference whatsoever in fighting a flu virus."

"There's no reason to believe that herbal remedies will prevent flu," Lorber tells WebMD. "Echinacea has been well studied now, and shown to do no good."

Lorber advises taking a daily multivitamin year-round to stay healthy and fight off a flu virus. "A multivitamin is the only commercially available product with any immune-boosting value," he says. A study published last year showed that taking a daily vitamin and mineral supplement decreased the number of respiratory infections in people over age 45 with type 2 diabetes.

"People with chronic illness may be missing essential minerals and vitamins ... so their immune system doesn't work as well as it should," Lorber tells WebMD. Any older person might get some flu virus protection from a multivitamin, he adds.

Over-the-Counter Remedies: If you catch the flu, stay away from fever-reducing drugs, Lorber advises. "There are good things that fever does for us. Fever increases the production of interferon in our bodies, a natural substance that fights viruses."

When you take a fever-reducing drug -- whether it's DayQuil, aspirin, Motrin, or any other -- you will feel better. But you actually shed the virus for a longer period of time, which means you are contagious longer, he says. Also, "you may actually take longer to recover," says Lorber.

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