It's flu season again, people: people are hacking and coughing everywhere we go. We all have a friend or coworker who's sick. So what do YOU do?

There's no cure for most of the bugs that are going around, so it's important to keep from catching 'em. Don't inhale other people's sneezes. Don't kiss folks who are ill. But most important, wash your hands frequently, especially before eating. Most people pick up germs with their hands, and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes: instant infection. When you touch your face before washing your hands, it's like licking every doorknob you've touched since you last washed.


Many viral syndromes start with a sore throat or cold symptoms, often followed by a cough. It's not technically "flu," or influenza. True influenza is caused by influenza viruses. Certain drugs will make it less severe or may prevent your getting it. However, doctors see so many viral infections that aren't influenza that true influenza may be hard to spot.

Smokers have more trouble than non-smokers, since their lungs have lost their natural cleaning capabilities. Normal lungs are lined with tiny hair cells that sweep up the watery mucus layer inside your bronchial tree. This is how lungs clean out the dirt, air pollution, dust, and germs you breathe. One minute of cigarette smoke will paralyze your lungs for 24 hours: all the dirt, smoke, and grime in the air stays in.
What to do when you're definitely sick?  The first thing is to beware overuse of cough and cold remedies!  Most contain strong drying agents which make your nose drip less, by drying it out. Unfortunately, that dries your lungs out, too. You end up with dried phlegm plugging up your chest. This tickles and irritates your bronchial tubes, making you cough. It blocks off small sections of your lungs and your bronchial tubes get infected with bacteria. This is called bronchitis.

Once you've got a chest full of dried phlegm, how do you get it out?   The key word here is "dry."  Ever notice how a steamy shower makes you cough?  That's because water vapor moistens and loosens the dried phlegm, which then starts to slide down the bronchial tubes. It tickles a new area and makes you cough. However, you want the phlegm to go up and out.

How do you get phlegm up?  Easy: steam up your lungs. 5 or 10 minutes in a closed bathroom full of steam works fine. Then, lie face down on a bed or couch with your head, shoulders, and back hanging downward over the edge, and have somebody pound your back with cupped hands while you're breathing as deep as you can and coughing hard. Do the chest percussion twice a day if possible. This may help you get some phlegm up and out, which is where you want it. Chest percussion should last about 5 minutes. Have a cup nearby for the phlegm.

Always check the phlegm color. If it's clear, white, or pale, the infection may still be viral, and antibiotics may not be necessary. If it's yellow, green, brown, or bloody, or if you are having fevers, chills, chest pains, or have other health problems, you might need antibiotics. Contact your health care delivery person.

Very important: get plenty of fluids. If you're dry, the phlegm will be thicker and harder to get up. Drink enough so that when you urinate, it comes out clear. (Remember that B-vitamins will turn your urine darker). Don't use alcohol as a primary fluid source: it dries you out. Coffee and tea do the same thing, to a lesser extent, but the caffeine can help wheezing.

A humidifier is very helpful, especially with a heating system that dries out the air. Since you're often breathing through your mouth when sleeping with a stuffy nose, your lungs get even drier. Use the humidifier in your bedroom at night. If you're sensitive to molds, be careful:  they grow better when it's damp. Turn the humidifier off during the day and air out the room.

Watch for high fevers not responsive to aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetominophen; shortness of breath; coughing up blood; or painful breathing. If you get any of those symptoms, get in touch with your health-care delivery person. Actually, "health-care delivery" isn't the right term anymore. How often do you get health care delivered to you?  Not very often. You have to come get it!

for more articles like this, see my book "Blood, Sweat, and Gears." Available from Whitehorse Press (800-531-1133) or by clicking here from amazon.

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