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The rules change during flu season

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Monday, March 18, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

When I complained of a sore throat a few weeks ago, a co-worker suggested I drink some apple cider vinegar. I cringed, but the minute I got home, I headed to the pantry and poured myself a shot glass of vinegar.

“That's acid, you know?” said my wife, who is a pharmacist.

I didn't care. I was feeling pretty crappy and was willing to try this home remedy, which my co-worker assured would make me feel brand new. I gulped about half the shot glass. It tasted like a salad without the vegetables.

The next morning, my sore throat was gone. Just like that, it disappeared. The near-miracle prompted me to call Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an internist at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. If the vinegar worked, I wanted to know, could it be that other home remedies might be beneficial in this hyped-up flu season?

“I've heard that some of those home remedies work for some people,” Itskowitz told me. “But most of them won't work for everybody.”

I asked other friends in the health care field, and they immediately shared all sorts of dubious cures: tea made with cayenne pepper, lemon and vinegar; gargling pepper in hot water; and eating raw ginger. One friend swore that she's been healed by garlic soup made with 20 cloves of garlic.

Not surprisingly, Itskowitz said the old standby chicken soup is actually not a bad idea to get relief from nasty symptoms such as stuffy noses and sore throats. It can keep nasal passages moist and help with hydration. Spices like garlic also have properties that provide relief from respiratory infections.

The home remedies might sound amusing, but this flu season is shaping up to be anything but fun. It seems like the flu is everywhere. Health authorities say at least 20 youths 17 and younger have died nationwide in what will likely be the worst flu season in a decade. In Pennsylvania, Allegheny County tops the list of counties with the most flu activity, according to the state health department, which says the flu appeared earlier than in past years.

Allegheny Valley Hospital was so overcrowded recently that patients weren't able to get a room and had to be cared for in the hallways or emergency department. In Lehigh Valley Hospital, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, doctors set up an outside tent to tend to the overflowing flu cases and keep the contagious away from other patients.

As the flu spreads, some hospitals have gone as far as requiring patients to wear surgical masks to prevent the influenza virus from spreading. Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Ohio, for example, has experienced a spike in flu cases compared with the past few years. The hospital encourages visitors with flu symptoms to wear a surgical mask when visiting loved ones. They have posted signs around the hospital telling visitors that masks are available at nurses' stations. Better yet, they suggest visitors consider staying home to protect their sick relatives.

It would be nice if more of us followed that advice and stayed home when sick, sparing people around us from the incessant cough, constant sneezing and nasty germs. Think about it. You could stay in bed with your neti pot and indulge in garlic and chicken soup. And shots of vinegar, of course.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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