As this year’s flu season reaches epidemic levels, with thousands of reported cases across the island, doctors at South Nassau Communities Hospital had two pieces of advice on Feb. 8 for those looking to get ahead of the disease: save your money on unproven dietary and vitamin supplements, and, more importantly, get vaccinated.
“There are bona fide, medically proven ways to prevent or ameliorate the impact of clinical influenza flu illness,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt chair of the Department of Medicine at South Nassau, and a specialist in infectious diseases. “One thing that is absolutely proven is that supplements do not do this.”
As part of the hospital’s fifth Truth in Medicine poll, 600 New York metropolitan area residents were asked whether they took dietary supplements, and if they did, whether they received a flu shot this season.
Of the people interviewed, 46 percent said they take dietary supplements for various reasons including to ward off cold and flu. Of those residents, 39 percent said they had not had a flu shot this year.
The supplements, which include vitamin C, multivitamins, essential oils, zinc and other ingredients are billed as effective ways to prevent disease and promote health, but according to Glatt, there is little evidence to support those claims.
“There is no supplement that gives you a truly clinically significant benefit,” he said. “They cost a lot of money and there are potential [dangerous] interactions … with prescription drugs.
Glatt added that because they are unregulated, there is no telling what kind of ingredients are actually in them.
Proven, ways to combat the flu, he said, include frequently washing one’s hands, avoiding contact with people who are sick, preventative medication proscribed by a primary care doctor and, crucially, the flu vaccine.
“Although the flu shot may not be 100 percent effective,” he said. “It will help reduce the severity of the flu and its symptoms.”
When pressed by reporters to explain some estimates that peg this season’s flu shot effectiveness at 10 percent, Glatt said that while doctors had guessed the correct influenza strain to include in the vaccine this season, there may be some room for improvement in the manufacture of the shot.
His colleague Dr. Adhi Sharma, chief medical officer at South Nassau, largely echoed Glatt’s points, but with a small exception.
“Everything you’ve heard is exactly accurate,” he told the group of reporters, and as a specialist in toxicology he added that one should check with their primary care doctor before taking an organic supplement to avoid dangerous interactions with prescription drugs.
But, citing studies by Nobel laureate Dr. Linus Pauling, when it comes to Vitamin C, Sharma said, there is some evidence that in limited cases, it could be effective in preventing a cold. “If you’re traveling on an airplane, working hard a lot of hours or not getting a lot of sleep,” he said. “Taking some Vitamin C during that period could boost your immunity.”
But generally, he said, “The studies on vitamins have shown that if you have a balanced diet, you don’t need supplements.” So save your money on vitamins, Sharma suggested, and buy some fruits and vegetables. The only real reason to take one, he explained, is if one has a deficiency.
In light of the poll, the two doctors agreed: Regardless of how effective one might believe a supplement to be, taking one in lieu of a flu vaccine could prove a costly and, possibly, deadly mistake.