Avoiding Bogus Flu Remedies

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The World Health Organization says it’s maintaining its estimate that swine flu — the virus better known now as “novel H1N1” — will infect some 2 billion people before the pandemic is over. That’s almost a third of the world’s population, and a scary thought. So this seems as good a time as any to figure out what’s fact and what’s plain misinformation when it comes to preventing and treating infection.

Alleged swine-flu tonics and prevention tools range from the slightly offbeat (like nasal douching) to the totally misguided (like excessive whiskey drinking). And both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have warned U.S. consumers against buying bogus flu remedies.

Don’t think you’ll get taken in by hucksters or quacks? Maybe not. But more common mistakes include hoarding antibiotics. Antibiotics can’t cure the flu, which is a viral infection, rather than a bacterial one. And as for those anti-infection facemasks, it turns out there’s not much info either way about whether they really work. On the whole, therefore, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t recommend that healthy people use them except in very unusual cases, although it does recommend that infected people wear them to avoid spreading disease.

Novel H1N1 is, of course, a flu, so all your normal, boring cold and flu rules apply — except that it’s not yet possible to get vaccinated. (A new vaccine is in the works.) Do wash your hands regularly. Avoid crowds if possible, especially once flu season begins in earnest this fall. Remember to stay home from work if you’re sick, and also to keep kids home from school or daycare when they’re sick. These tactics aren’t foolproof, but they will help.

For more detailed, concrete guidelines, you can also check out some of the H1N1 pages from the CDC. These include practical tips, like how to handle sheets or dishes used by someone who’s infected. (Answer: Linens and utensils don’t need to be cleaned separately from others of their ilk, but definitely should be cleaned before another person shares them.) Government agencies have also put together an info site with facts about FDA-approved anti-virals and diagnostic tests, so you know which ones are legit. It can’t hurt. After all, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in May, “The last thing any consumer needs right now is to be conned by someone selling fraudulent flu remedies.”