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How to Stay Healthy During Flu Season: Adventure Doc Answers Our Questions

by Juliane Huang Jan 24, 2009
Adventure Doc gives insight as to how best protect oneself during the flu season.

ERIK MCLAUGHLIN IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL DOCTOR. This family practice resident speaks four languages, attended medical school in England, and aims to focus on expedition medicine in the near future.

With a real passion for taking care of travelers and embarking on adventures in remote locations, he is an adventure doc in every sense of the word.

Matador sat down with the Adventure Doc to pick his brain for travel health advice. Travelers are exposed to a much wider range of viruses and medical situations abroad than domestically, and we wanted to know what advice the Doc had for our readers.

Matador: Does Vitamin C really work?

Vitamin C is relatively well known as having some benefit, although it has yet to be proven in serious medical literature. Lots of people cite many studies on Vitamin C. These studies are often improperly done, have small numbers of participants, and show skewed data.

Interpretation of data is key, as is the source and quality of the research study. Basically, there is no proof of the effectiveness of Vitamin C, but I say, if it makes you feel better, go for it! I still take one gram of Vitamin C every day that I am sick.

Matador: And what about Emergen-C?

I actually drink Emergen-C often. I love the easy packets, great vitamins, and electrolytes. I had a glass earlier today. I also carry it with me in my first aid kit when I travel.

Matador: Why are sports drinks so effective in rehydrating sick people?

The thing about sports drinks is that they contain glucose, which couples with water molecules, helping them get from inside the stomach to the blood stream faster. Thus, dehydration gets treated faster. Sports drinks are the best for dehydration, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

But you don’t need to buy the expensive ones. Some water, a few pinches of salt, and a spoonful of sugar work fine, too.

Matador: Hand sanitizing gel vs. hand washing?

A very good question! There is a bit of an argument in the surgical crowd about this. Both state that the gel and actual hand washing are effective, and I believe they are. But one always tries to be better than the other.

The problem with hand washing is that tap water is not always clean water and definitely not sterile. If I just washed my hands with soap and then rinsed with crappy water, that’s no good.

Personally, I use hand gel when I need to be sterile and try a mix of both when I’m traveling. Either way, washing your hands is the most important thing to prevent infection from colds and the flu. This is proven, retested, and proven again. This is the most important thing I can say about infection prevention.

Matador: How does the flu shot work?

The flu shot is basically a prediction of what several flu strains are going to be the most virulent and pathogenic the next year. Flu shot engineers take into consideration the way viruses change as they shift from continent to continent and spread around the world.

Engineers grow the virus, then inactivate it before administering it to patients so it cannot infect people. Your body recognizes the virus and remembers it so when you encounter it again, your body immediately releases white blood cells to kick some butt! Flu shots do work and should be encouraged.

Matador: Why is it so important travelers get the flu shot?

Viruses mutate as they travel the globe. This is where travelers come into the equation of global disease spread. Influenza is pandemic stuff. Think epidemics that kill millions. The common cold just gives you a runny nose, a 2-3 day fever, and a cough.

The flu kills millions in outbreaks. The early 1900s saw a global pandemic killing millions. This is the fear with the bird flu. Hence the emphasis on travelers getting the flu shot.

Matador: Besides travelers, for whom else is the flu shot essential?

People with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease should get the flu shot. Anybody who risks being killed from a case of the flu should get a flu shot.

Matador: What is the typical incubation period for the flu virus, and is it possible to combat the flu during this stage?

The incubation period varies depending on the virus, bacteria, or infectious agent. Generally a 2-14 day incubation is common. Fighting off the flu is almost a futile attempt. If you got it, you got it. Like bad body odor, nothing can be done.

The term we use is “symptomatic treatment,” meaning we try to help the runny nose, cough, or fever. But fighting the virus is very tough. Viruses are clever. There are some antiviral medications like Tamiflu that take action against replication of the viruses, thus shortening the duration of the illness.

However, use of antivirals can also increase resistance to the medications, ultimately making them useless.Really, the only things you can do is treat the symptoms and ride it out.

Matador: What are some key steps in prevention?

The flu shot may not be in everyone’s lifestyle, but hand washing should be. Hand washing is a very inexpensive and very effective method of prevention. Rest is also key, as lack of rest can lower the immune system.

Additionally, some argue that being properly hydrated prevents tiny cracks in your mucous membranes that will allow viral particles suspended in the air an easy entry portal.

Proper nutrition is also vital. Being fit and healthy lessens your recovery time, makes your immune system stronger, and increases resistance. This is why people with chronic medical problems should get the flu shot.

Matador: What is the number one piece of advice you’d give to travelers in order to avoid the flu?

Travelers are encountering things that they have never seen before – buildings, people, pathogens. Their resistance to simple local illnesses is almost non-existent. Travelers need to be extra cautious as they are encountering things that are new to their body. Hand washing is the most important thing a traveler can do to avoid the common cold while on the road. Proven prevention is hand washing.

Matador: How do you know when it’s time to go see a doctor?

Signs of trouble include fevers not responsive to medication like Tylenol, shortness of breath with cough, changes in the color of mucus. Rashes are also pretty big red flags to me. This is assuming lots of things like the person is a healthy adult, not in a malaria-exposed environment, and has no recent foreign exposures.

Matador: What items does the Adventure Doc pack to stay healthy while traveling?

Ibuprofen or a pain and fever medication like Tylenol, electrolyte powder, and an antihistamine like Benadryl. Ibuprofen can treat pain, fever, inflammation, and much more. It is truly a wonder drug!

Matador: What literature would you recommend for our travelers without medical backgrounds?

Field Guide To Wilderness Medicine, Travel and Tropical Medicine Manual, and Where There Is No Doctor. The best, by far, is the Field Guide to Wilderness Medicine. That should be read by every traveler.

The Adventure Doc hopes to open his own travel clinic in 2009 and is available for internet consultations. Visit his website or contact him through email :

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