Sorry, Vitamin C Won't Prevent The Flu, Doctors Say

Every now and then, Dr. Kelly Maedo will have a patient who asks whether specific herbal supplements will help fight the flu. She tells them the same thing.


"It's not going to hurt you, but it's not going to do anything for you," says Maedo, who owns Brazos Valley Urgent Care Clinic.

She's one of several area doctors who warn against putting too much stock in over-the-counter supplements that promise to prevent or shorten the duration of the flu. Your best option when it comes to the flu, they say, is to prevent it in the first place with a vaccine.

Dr. Lon Young, an ER specialist at Caprock ER, says he gets a lot of questions around this time of year about whether zinc, vitamin C or vitamin E can help prevent the flu. Unfortunately, he says, studies don't make a case for these supplements.

"That goes for all supplements," he said. "There is no supplement that I'm aware of that has ever shown benefit. While most of them are harmless, they just probably don't do anything to help with the symptoms."

Young says there are essentially two types of medication for the flu: prescriptions such as Tamiflu that target the infection and over-the-counter medications that treat the symptoms.

Over-the-counter meds can help alleviate the symptoms, but they won't actually kill the infection.

"Really, in terms of prevention over the counter, the best thing you can do is buy some hand soap and keep your hands washed," Rachel Crowder, director of pharmacy for Baylor, Scott and White said.

Maedo warns that Tamiflu has its limits, too.

"If you are not seen within 48 of getting symptoms, Tamiflu becomes a very expensive sugar pill," she said.

The best way to prevent the flu, or at least lessen the impact, is to get the flu vaccine, even if this year's vaccine isn't as effective, says Maedo.

"Some people will say, 'I've already got the flu, why should I even get a flu shot?'" she said. "Well you can get a flu shot twice in one season."

An analysis published in December in the New England Journal of Medicine, this flu season's vaccine may not be as effective against the dominant H3N2 strain.

If not for yourself, Maedo says, then get the flu shot to lesson the risk of more vulnerable populations getting sick. If you have the flu, stay home for this same reason.

Schools in the area are reporting lower absences due to sickness during the first week back than in December. Maedo says that winter break likely helped reduce the spread of the flu.

"[Students] keep going to class even when they are sick -- and people who work do the same thing," Maedo says. "They don't want to miss work. We're sometimes in a culture where you feel like you're not tough if you don't go to work. Well, you aren't tough when you go to work with a 102 fever and get everyone else in the office sick."

Young says he's been involved with or treated four children who have died from the flu in his 14 years in the community. He adds that he cannot stress enough how important it is for families to not let sick kids attend class.

"It is a disease that can kill," he said. "If a kid walks into a school and hasn't been vaccinated, they can easily infect someone who would die of the flu, yet there's no rule against coming to school without a flu shot."

The elderly and the young struggle the most to fight off the virus, says Young.

"Sadly, most grandparents who die of the flu will be exposed to it by a grandchild who went to school and picked it up and brought it home," he said.

If you get flu symptoms -- fever, cough, body aches, chills, runny nose, headaches -- the Centers for Disease Control recommends checking with your doctor if you are "at high risk of serious flu complications" or are "worried about your illness."

If you have a mild case of the flu, the CDC advises not going to the emergency room.

Young says your doctor may feel differently depending on your specific case, but you should generally wait a day after your fever subsides to return to work or school.

"A full 24 hours after the last fever of a 100.4 or higher without medication -- in other words if you are treating it with ibuprofen, that doesn't count -- then that's the most reasonable cut off to say the contagiousness is either gone or diminished," he said.