Expert tips on flu prevention and recovery

Doctors in the UAE advise on everything you need to know about the seasonal illness and staying safe, from boosting immunity to getting the vaccine

Winter has long been associated with a surge in cases of the flu. Photo: Unsplash
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The UAE's winter months are glorious. However, there could be a downside to time spent outside in busy places, or out and about without masks for the first time in more than two years.

“In the UAE, we generally see a surge in flu cases during the winter months,” Dr Jyoti Upadhyay, internal medicine specialist at Aster Hospital in Dubai, tells The National.

Once infected, typical symptoms such as high fever, body pain and fatigue can last for weeks.

The condition can be life-threatening to high-risk individuals, including children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with underlying health problems, according to the Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre.

Thankfully, there are ways to go about protecting yourself against contracting the virus and speeding up recovery if you have it.

Prevention

Consume fruits, vegetables and nuts to boost your immunity. Photo: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Prevention, as they say, is better than cure, and a strong immune system is your best defence against infection.

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Sleep plays an important role in your body’s ability to fight infections
Dr Hoda Makkawi, Euromed Clinic

“It is one of the most complex systems in the body, comprising various organs, cells and proteins; including your skin, the corneas of your eyes, the mucosa of the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract and the lymphatic system,” says Dr Hoda Makkawi, an anti-ageing medicine specialist and consultant for family medicine at Euromed Clinic in Dubai.

This is why it's crucial to maintain its optimal function. Here are some ways to do that.

Eat healthily

A balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts and plenty of water could help to strengthen the immune system.

“The digestive tract is an integral part of your immune system, so it is essential to keep your intestinal lining healthy and functioning well,” explains Makkawi.

Vitamins B6, C and E are known to boost immunity, according to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. Citrus fruits and berries are rich in vitamin C, while vitamin B6 can be found in bananas, green vegetables and chickpeas.

Vitamin C acts as a powerful antioxidant and can be found in nuts, seeds and spinach.

Aside from food, consider supplements, such as probiotics for improved gut health, says Dr Rashmi Kiran Fernandes, ENT specialist at RAK Hospital.

She adds that people should avoid processed foods, as well as caffeinated and aerated drinks. Maintaining a healthy weight will also help.

Get quality sleep

People can often take the benefits of getting the right amount of sleep for granted.

Makkawi highlights the importance of getting “good-quality" sleep.

"Proteins called cytokines are released during sleep and play an important role in your body’s ability to fight infections.”

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Antiviral drugs will shorten the illness by a day or two and prevent further complications
Dr Rashmi Kiran Fernandes, RAK Hospital

The National Sleep Foundation in the US recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep for healthy adults, and six to eight hours for people over the age of 65.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, getting four hours or fewer of sleep could lead to a higher risk of infection, and even the efficacy of the flu vaccine could be affected for people who don't get enough shut-eye.

Recovery

Drink plenty of fluids

"It’s vital to stay well hydrated, so stick to drinking water and herbal teas," says Makkawi. "Avoid caffeinated drinks, which are dehydrating. If you become dehydrated, you will not be able to mobilise the secretions out of your chest and cough them up, a process needed to aid your recovery.”

Upadhyay adds: “Because most infected people will be exhausted from the high-grade fever and other symptoms, they must rest and drink plenty of water and soups to feel better.”

Seek medical attention

Dr Rashmi Kiran of RAK Hospitals

“If your symptoms are more severe or if you are at a higher risk of complications, then you may need to visit your healthcare provider. Antiviral drugs may be prescribed to you, which will shorten the illness by a day or two and prevent further complications," says Fernandes.

“Take antipyretics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for other symptoms associated with flu. Cough syrups, nasal sprays and oral antihistamines will help the running nose, nasal congestion and cough associated with the illness.”

Contain the infection

Makkawi says: “If you are sick, keep your distance from others. Whenever you cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth. Ensure you regularly wash your hands. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.”

The flu vaccine

Both doctors and government authorities in the UAE have always encouraged residents to get the influenza vaccine, which should be taken on an annual basis, ideally before the winter months when cases tend to surge.

“Yearly vaccination is the best way for prevention. The seasonal influenza vaccine protects against common viruses that cause flu,” according to the Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre.

The flu vaccine uses a deactivated or weakened strain of the influenza virus to train your body to recognise a protein on the surface of the virus, causing the immune system to develop antibodies that will fight the infection.

Because the outer structures of the flu virus change often, vaccines are also updated, which is why medical and health authorities recommend getting the shot every year.

There is an increasing awareness among people to get the vaccine in the UAE, says Keswin Suresh, who cofounded DarDoc, which administers at-home flu-shot services in the country.

“Certainly, the pandemic has become a catalyst for people to be more cautious,” he tells The National.

The Department of Health reported that about 70,000 influenza vaccines were distributed in September and October last year in Abu Dhabi alone. In December, the authority cleared a network of pharmacies as official facilities where people can get the shot, in an ongoing effort to promote flu vaccines in the UAE capital.

“The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of three, especially those who are at high risk of developing serious complications from the flu, including people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, smokers, frequent travellers and people over the age of 50,” adds Suresh.

Tips for high-risk individuals

Catching the flu is concerning enough, but people with other health conditions such as diabetes and arthritis, need to be more cautious.

Humeira Badsha, a rheumatologist and founding member of the Middle East Arthritis Foundation says: “With a compromised immune system, you’re more vulnerable to contagious illnesses.”

She adds that those with arthritis, for instance, are 35 per cent more likely to catch the flu.

“The complications are higher as the already immunocompromised system is now under attack by another foreign substance,” Badsha says. Complications include bronchitis, pneumonia and other sinus infections.

Other high-risk groups are children and the elderly. In 2020, the Dubai Health Authority released the results of a two-year report on influenza in the emirate. It revealed that almost 49.5 per cent of cases were in children younger than 10. High rates were also observed in the older population, prompting a double-down on promoting the flu vaccine.

Updated: January 17, 2023, 8:43 AM
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