How to treat the flu: a shopping guide

Flu season is upon us, and your local pharmacy may feature special displays with products claiming to cure or treat the flu (which is caused by the influenza virus). The array of products, and the claims featured on their packaging, can be bewildering. Which of them should you buy? Here is a quick guide. (Spoiler: if you want to know what really works, skip to the end.)

This photo from a local RiteAid shows their display of "alternative" treatments. Let's consider a few of them.
Alternative pills that claim to treat the flu. 
1. Across the top we have vitamin C drops, helpfully labelled "Defense" in large letters. You might think these would defend you against the flu virus, but you'd be wrong. Vitamin C has no effect whatsoever on the flu, and it doesn't prevent colds either. People have been taking it for decades, but popularity is no substitute for evidence.

2. The shelves include 11 different formulations of Airborne, with the phrase "helps support your immune system" prominently displayed. Does this product help your immune system fight off the flu? Not even a tiny bit. Airborne is nothing more than an overpriced vitamin supplement (including vitamin C), and it's on the shelf because of clever and misleading marketing. Back in 2008, Airborne settled a $23.3 million lawsuit over false advertising, which was filed because they called their product a "miracle cold buster." After the lawsuit, they simply re-labeled it as an "immune booster," which is vague enough that they've been getting away with this claim ever since. Save your money.
3. Several of the products here, notably Zicam, are basically sugar pills supplemented with zinc. Some time ago, there was preliminary evidence that zinc might reduce the duration of a cold, but there was never any evidence that it could work for the flu. (Aside: colds are caused by completely different viruses.) Once scientists looked at it a little harder, they discovered that zinc doesn't work for colds either, as I explained in a 2012 column. Zicam is marketed as homeopathic, a clever ploy that allows it to escape government regulation. Their marketing constantly dances around what is permitted, usually by claiming it provides "immune support." Sound familiar?
Very expensive sugar pills.
4. On the bottom shelf you might notice Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic remedy that is just a sugar pill. Oscillo's claims to treat anything are almost laughably ridiculous: its "active" ingredient is supposed to be an extract from the heart and liver of a duck, which is then diluted until even that ingredient is no longer present.  As you can see in the close-up picture here, it's not cheap: $31 for 30 pills.
The box also claims that it "reduces duration and severity of flu symptoms," a completely false claim. The FDA has issued warning letters about this before, pointing out that "These products have not been approved or otherwise authorized by FDA for use in the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment (including treatment of symptoms), or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus." Apparently the manufacturers of Oscillo (and the numerous places that sell it) are just ignoring the FDA.

These are just the "alternative" treatments. Most pharmacies have an even larger selection of flu treatments with real medicine in them. Here's a photo from the same RiteAid, right next to the alt-med selections.  
Medicines that try to treat the flu.
The selection here includes pills and liquids in many shapes and sizes, and all of them have active ingredients that do indeed have some effects. But they don't actually treat the flu itself: instead, they treat some of the symptoms, such as pain and congestion. None of them work very well, although those that contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen do help reduce pain.

So what does work? The latest medical science offers only two options:
1. Vaccination. Get your flu shot! The flu vaccine isn't perfect, and it varies in efficacy from year to year, but it usually provides some protection. In the best years it can reduce your chance of getting the flu by 75% or more. It's far better to avoid getting the flu in the first place.

2. Oseltamavir (Tamiflu), available only by prescription, is the only anti-viral medication that has been shown to have some effectiveness against the flu. It's not great, but it can reduce the severity of symptoms and maybe shorten the duration of the illness by about 1 day. You have to see a doctor to get it, which means taking your (sick) child or self to a doctor's office and exposing other people to the flu. 

The bottom line: none of the treatments that you can buy without a prescription will cure the flu. The "alternative" treatments are completely useless, and the real medicines might help a little bit with symptom control. 

Your best choice, by far, is the flu vaccine. Unfortunately, the internet is filled with misinformation such as claims that the vaccine doesn't work, or that it can give you the flu, or (worst of all) the utterly discredited notion that preservatives in the vaccine cause autism. Some of the anti-vaccine nonsense has even been promoted by presidential candidates, namely Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Jill Stein. By spreading these false stories, Trump and Stein are doing real harm to the public health.

Flu advice from a future doctor.
Finally, I want to give props to RiteAid for trying to get people vaccinated. In front of the same store at which I took these pictures were two large signs saying "Get your flu shot today." Inside the store, they had a special table with science-based information about the flu vaccine, which featured artwork from local children (one of them shown here) encouraging other kids to get vaccinated. Well done.

Better diagnosis of infections

This week I'm not posting an article here because I wrote a piece for BloombergView, the online magazine published by Bloomberg, the company founded by Michael Bloomberg. The article is titled "Make Way for Better Germ Tests." Check it out here.

NIH will spend $37 million to study discredited treatment that may harm patients

What do you do when you've spent $30 million to study a highly controversial, possibly harmful treatment, only to learn that it doesn't work?

If you're NIH's alternative medicine center, you double down. More than double, actually: NIH's NCCIH* just announced they will spend another $37 million to study chelation as a treatment for heart disease. Or to be more specific, Mount Sinai of Florida and Duke University issued a press release this past week proudly announcing that they'd won a $37 million grant to launch TACT2, the second Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy. TACT2 will be a followup study from TACT, which ended in 2012 after largely failing, as I'll explain below.

Chelation is a harsh chemical treatment, using a chemical called disodium EDTA, that is sometimes used to treat lead poisoning, because it can help to remove heavy metals from the blood. Some people think that this can somehow remove plaques from arteries, a sort of Roto-Rooter for your circulation, which in turn might improve cardiovascular health. This turns out to be wrong.

(Chelation is also promoted, tragically, as a treatment for autism. Anti-vax doctors who think that mercury causes autism have been pushing this for years. In 2014, the FDA issued a warning for parents to beware of this dangerous and ineffective therapy.)

Let's briefly review what TACT was, and some of its problems. There are far too many to list here, but I'll refer readers to a lengthy article published in 2008 by Dr. Kimball Atwood and colleagues for details. That article, which called for a halt to TACT, explained that:

  • a series of randomized trials in the 1990s found no evidence that chelation worked for coronary artery disease
  • most of the early advocates of chelation (in the 1960s) were also outspoken advocates for Laetrile and other ineffective therapies
  • at least 30 deaths have been report associated with EDTA, but the doctors pushing its continued usage deny that any deaths have occurred.
  • the scientific literature has shown that the underlying "heavy metals" hypothesis is implausible
  • the TACT study includes "nearly 100 co-investigators who, in our opinion, are unsuitable to care for human subjects or to report trial data ... several have been disciplined, for substandard practices, by state medical boards; several have been involved in insurance fraud; at least 3 are convicted felons."
  • "The researchers failed to inform the subjects that one risk of the treatment was death." (from The Chicago Tribune.)

Atwood and colleagues called for a halt to the TACT study, saying it was "pointless, dangerous, unethical, and wasteful."

The TACT study was indeed halted in 2008 for these and other ethical concerns, but it was quietly resumed about a year later. Then in 2012, the final results were reported. Although the results were almost entirely negative, the lead investigator, Gervasio Lamas, claimed that there was a benefit for a sliver of patients: people with diabetes who had a prior heart attack. That's the group he plans to focus on in the new TACT2 trial.

As Forbes writer Matt Herper explained in 2012, most doctors were highly skeptical of these results. Cardiologist Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic said "It would be tragic if the result of this was a widespread use of chelation." Science blogger (and cancer doctor) Orac provided a detailed analysis of the results at the time, explaining why the study essentially failed to prove any benefit for chelation. Most of the results were not statistically significant, and the best the study could claim was very marginal significance for a small benefit, a result that could easily be explained by bias, which was rampant in this study.

TACT2 is being run by the same doctor, Gervasio Lamas, who recruited questionable practitioners into the first trial. There's no reason to think the second trial will be run any better. The new trial will subject 1,200 diabetic heart attack survivors to chelation therapy in an effort to prove that chelation helps prevent a second heart attack. Not only is this extremely unlikely to provide any benefit, it also exposes the patients to serious risks that Lamas and his colleagues don't seem to acknowledge, and probably won't tell the patients about.

NIH should pull the plug on this enormous ($37 million) and dangerous trial before it begins. If potential patients are informed correctly that there is a serious risk of harm with virtually no chance of benefit, then hopefully they will simply refuse to enroll. That would be the best outcome for everyone.

*In case you're wondering what NCCIH is, it's the new acronym for the former National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NCCAM. Last year it was renamed. The new name is the National Center for Crackpot and Implausible Hypotheses, Or maybe it's the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, you decide.