CISRA’s Synergy Health Newsletter

Issue 7. A Strategy for Completely Preventing Colds and Flus?

by J. C. Waterhouse, Ph.D.

Abstract

This article hypothesizes that: 1. Daily use of very low dose intranasal and sublingual alpha interferon may be able to entirely prevent respiratory viruses that cause colds and possibly flus and, 2. Daily use of very small amounts of the homeopathic Boiron Oscillococcinum (TM)* may be useful for preventing respiratory and gastrointestinal viral infections. Some supporting background and case studies are also discussed.

Introduction

For many people, colds and flus are an occasional inconvenience, but for others they can be quite frequent, debilitating or even lead to life-threatening complications. The health of people with conditions such as chronic lung inflammation, bronchitis, asthma, sarcoidosis, cystic fibrosis, diminished cardiovascular capacity, ulcers, chronic diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, immune suppression due to chemotherapy, transplants, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, AIDS or other inherited or acquired immunosuppressive disorders, all can be worsened by respiratory or gastrointestinal viruses and their complications. In this article, two possible preventive measures are proposed and supported with some case histories and suggestive scientific research. Together, these inexpensive strategies may have the potential to prevent virtually all colds and flus in many people, and if these early indications prove to be correct, this possibility is available, not far off in the future, but very soon.

Very Low Dose Intranasal and Sublingual Alpha Interferon For Respiratory Viruses

Alpha interferon, a synthetic version of a naturally occurring human cytokine, is used at high doses (1 to 5 million IU) by injection for certain cancers and hepatitis infections (1). There have been at least two placebo controlled studies (2, 3) that showed that intranasal alpha interferon could reduce colds by 39-88% when begun near the time of exposure. These studies used high doses of alpha-2 interferon and were found to cause nasal irritation and bleeding in some patients. At these high doses, there might also be the potential for other side effects if continued for longer periods of time. In hepatitis and cancer, a wide array of side effects from high dose alpha interferon injections can and do occur, and some patients need to reduce the dose or stop treatment because of these side effects (e.g., neurotoxicity, lethargy, neutropenia).

Alpha interferon is known to have several means of helping the immune system to combat viruses (reference 1, p. 1070-1). The body naturally produces very large amounts of alpha interferon in the first few days of a cold, and this is very important during the early period of infection, before the immune system has time to produce virus specific lymphocytes and antibodies. As will be seen from the case history presented below, it may be that a very small amount of alpha interferon, given ahead of time, may have dramatic preventive effects if delivered to the cells that first encounter the virus in the nose and throat. This case history suggests that a strategy using daily low doses of intranasal and sublingual alpha interferon may be effective, relatively inexpensive and have minimal, if any, side effects. The daily use may be an important issue, since if one begins after viral exposure or first symptoms, it would probably be less likely to be able to halt the viral infection.

Anecdotal Evidence of Prevention of Colds

The first part of the strategy is so far supported primarily by the records of a single patient, but the research discussed above suggests that it may be valid enough to serve as a basis for further study. The patient was ill with chronic fatigue syndrome for over 18 years, and had averaged 0.88 colds per month during the last 2 years. Frequently, a known exposure to a cold of another person was involved, and so it was fairly clear that this was not a chronic allergy situation (the patient also has low IgE levels indicating low allergy levels). Between colds, the patient was not prone to significant respiratory symptoms from other causes.

Many immune enhancing vitamins and supplements were tried by the patient over the years, but the colds continued at a high rate. The previous year, the colds even continued when alpha interferon was tried sublingually at doses up to 1250 IU daily, though there may have been a reduction in frequency (see below). Interestingly, 10 years ago, in the same patient, the sublingual doses alone were observed to be much more successful at preventing colds than they were during this trial, suggesting responses may vary with immune status.

When the patient was taking the sublingual alpha interferon alone, the colds typically began in the nose, rather than the throat. This observation prompted the use of half of the dose sublingually and half the dose using a nasal spray. The first time the nasal spray was tried, it was after the first few hours of the cold, after some nasal symptoms of a cold had begun. Under these circumstances of delayed use of the nasal spray, before the new strategy of daily treatment had begun, the alpha interferon did not succeed in preventing the cold from developing further. The subsequent success of the daily use of the intranasal and sublingual alpha interferon in preventing colds, as described below, suggests how important it may be for it to be used prior to the first symptoms.

Initially, when this new strategy of daily sublingual and intranasal low dose alpha interferon was tried, the dose of alpha interferon used was 500 IU intranasally and 500 IU sublingually. Since this approach of daily preventive use was begun in June 2004, 6 months ago, the patient has not had a single new cold or respiratory infection. Prior to this last 6 months, there was only two times in the last 3 years in which this patient went even 2 months without a cold. Over time, lower doses were tried and still seem to be effective. Over the last 2 months, the dose has been decreased to 125 IU daily or even more recently, on alternate days. On at least 3 occasions, the patient has been exposed to a cold and has not become ill. Before this approach was begun, the patient does not recall being exposed to a known cold in the last 10 years without becoming infected (the patient keeps records of exposures to colds, as well as colds and other symptoms).

To put this in context and adjust for the season of the year, the data from this patient for the 3 previous years was examined for a total of 18 months (June-November, 2001, 2002, 2003). The rate of colds was 0.67 colds per month for those 18 months, prior to the new approach. If one excludes the data from 2003, during which the patient was taking 750 IU alpha interferon sublingually and had only 2 colds, the rate of colds without any alpha interferon would have been 0.83 colds/month (the lower rate of colds when taking the sublingual alpha interferon suggests that it may have stopped some of the colds that might have begun in the throat). The sudden drop from a rate of 0.67-0.83 colds/month to a rate of 0.0 colds/month for 6 months coinciding with the use of this new strategy is strongly suggestive of its effectiveness.

Of course, more study is needed to verify this case history and also to find out what doses might work best for various types of patients. No side effects, positive or negative, were experienced by the patient during the time during which the alpha interferon was being used. Only one other patient has tried this approach so far, and for only 2 months. This is not long enough to tell clearly if it has been effective, since this second patient was not prone to frequent colds. However, no side effects were experienced by this patient either.

The medical textbook, Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, (1) describes one of the mechanisms through which alpha interferon works as being particularly able to counteract the strategy used by the influenza virus. Also, it seems reasonable that, since alpha interferon has broad anti-viral properties, daily use of these low doses might even help prevent serious respiratory viruses, like influenza, as well as SARS and bird flu. However, this low a dose, administered in this way, would not be likely to be effective against viruses that enter through routes other than through the respiratory system, such as West Nile virus or gastrointestinal viruses.

Potential for Side Effects Appears Minimal

Alpha interferon stimulates the TH1 branch of the immune system, and this might be of concern for those with certain illnesses in which an increased TH1 immune response would be detrimental. In many of these cases, high doses of interferon could be harmful. However, the doses being discussed here are very small, orders of magnitude smaller than those used in cancer and hepatitis (about 1/40,000th ), and it would seem unlikely that they would be harmful. The doses discussed above for preventive use are also quite small relative to the levels of alpha interferon which the body normally produces during the first few days of viral infections.

Also, it is likely that the effect of these very small doses is very localized, since the somewhat higher dose of sublingual alpha interferon mentioned above (1250 IU) did not seem to affect the rate of infection of colds entering through the nasal route or the rate of gastrointestinal virus infections. No systemic effects were detected by the two patients who used it, even in the case when 1250 IU was used sublingually. It seems probable that far greater systemic effects would be experienced by a person not using this very low dose alpha interferon who experienced repeated acute infections in which the body produces very large amounts of alpha interferon. And there would probably be much greater potential for harm from a viral infection, particularly for individuals with certain illnesses in which complications of infection might be serious.

Obtaining Low Dose Interferon

The alpha interferon in these very small doses was obtained via mail order with a prescription through Catchings Pharmacy (800-356-1620, Amarillo, Texas). The alpha 2-interferon used for injections for cancer patients is diluted by the pharmacy and divided into 250 IU doses, which are then frozen and mailed overnight. The cost is reasonable, especially if the lower doses on alternate days turn out to be more widely successful. Individual doses can then be thawed in the refrigerator when needed, but seem to last for at least a few weeks in the refrigerator when thawed. One can purchase special nasal spray bottles (Key pharmacy has a convenient small glass sprayer, 800-878-1322) or use the empty container from an over-the-counter nasal spray. Other pharmacies could also do the dilution or may already do so, but I am currently only aware of Catchings Pharmacy as a source for these low doses of diluted alpha interferon.

(Note on cold symptom reduction: This author has written previously about anecdotal experiences with a cold remedy that was quite successful in relieving cold symptoms, especially if it was begun soon after the first symptoms appeared and was taken frequently (4). However, it appears that, in very susceptible people, colds still often become established, can be quite fatiguing and the remedy does not work equally well for everyone. It does have the advantage of being a non prescription option, though. The product is Boericke and Tafel’s Alpha CF (TM). It is widely available in health food and drug stores.)

Preventing Influenza and Gastrointestinal Virus Infections With Boiron Oscillococcinum (TM)*

This part of the prevention strategy is based on experiences with a homeopathic medicine, Boiron Oscillococcinum (TM)*, in preventing influenza and gastrointestinal virus infections. This use for prevention and the use for gastrointestinal viruses has not yet been studied in a scientifically controlled manner, nor are these uses endorsed in any way by the manufacturer due to this lack of research. However, since the potential benefits are great, this author believes that some anecdotal results are worth reporting, so as to encourage controlled scientific studies in the future to evaluate its usefulness.

Homeopathic remedies are more widely used in Europe than in the U.S. However, the homeopathic approach, involving very small doses of substances, has been increasingly studied and used in the U.S. in recent years (5). The Boiron Oscillococcinum remedy is derived from duck hearts and livers, and through the homeopathic method of dilution, is so dilute that the presence of molecules from the duck would be wholly unsuspected by anyone using the remedy. Boiron Oscillococcinum is particularly dilute even according to homeopathic standards (200C, the larger the number, the more dilute, in the homeopathic system). The only taste detectable is that of the base that contains lactose and sucrose. For details on homeopathy, its theory, practice and controversies relating to it, the reader is referred elsewhere (5, 6).

For the purposes of this article, it is enough to know that Boiron Oscillococcinum is regulated by the FDA as a drug, is sold over the counter, has no reported side effects and has been found by several controlled studies to be better than placebo in reducing symptoms of the flu or flu-like illnesses (7, 8, 9, 10). The usual recommended way of using it is to dissolve the entire contents of one tube in the mouth, usually under the tongue, at the first sign of an influenza-type illness and repeat every 6 hours, up to 3 times a day for 3 days (see package for more details). It is best to take it apart from meals (i.e., leaving 15 minutes or more between the remedy and a meal), and in a mouth free of strong flavors.

In this article, the way in which the Oscillococcinum remedy is proposed to be used is as an experimental prevention strategy for influenza, as well as flu-like respiratory viruses, and gastrointestinal viruses. Although not studied scientifically so far, Papp et al (6) mentions that for influenza-like syndromes, it “is widely used in France as prophylaxis…” in addition to therapy. I will discuss the experiences of 3 patients in the U.S. who tried using it on a daily basis for prophylaxis.

Anecdotal Evidence

Of the patients to be discussed here, the first patient, the same one discussed in the most detail above, provides the strongest evidence for prevention of gastrointestinal viruses, since this patient was having frequent gastrointestinal viral infections. The illnesses were recorded by the patient and were usually characterized by diarrhea, nausea, fatigue and muscle aches. The initiation of these infections were often tracked to an exposure to a person who had a similar infection, and the type of contact was such that it was fairly clear that there was an infectious virus involved and not a food borne bacterial cause.

During one of the periods when this patient was being exposed to a household contact with a diarrheal illness, the patient began taking ½ tube of Oscillococcinum daily in the hope of avoiding catching the illness. For several days, this seemed to work. Then, when the patient ran out of the remedy, one day’s dose was skipped, and the next day, the patient developed the diarrheal illness.

After this experience, the above patient began using the Oscillococcinum every day, and gradually decreased the amount used until only a few pellets were used each day. From the time the daily use of the Oscillococcinum remedy began, the patient abruptly stopped having these gastrointestinal flus. Twice, other family members had infections, one involving diarrhea, the other involving vomiting, and in neither case did the patient get sick. This resistance to a known exposure to a gastrointestinal illness had never occurred during the past 15 years, according to this patient. The recorded average rate of gastrointestinal illnesses was 0.5 per month during the 3 previous years during the same seasons of the year (June-November). In contrast, since the daily doses of Oscillococcinum have begun, 6 months have gone by without the patient experiencing a single one of these illnesses.

A second patient has had a more limited experience that also supports this effect. This patient was having diarrheal illnesses of probable viral origin during the previous 2 years at a rate of 0.38 per month (records show the seasonal rate for July to November in the previous 2 years was 0.3). Since he began a daily small dose of Boiron Oscillococcinum, he has had no more diarrheal illnesses for 5 months from July-November of 2004.

For a third person, the data is even more limited because of the shorter term records, but still supportive of this preventive effect. This patient had two severe stomach flus within a 3 month period before beginning Oscillococcinum. During the following 4 months, while taking Oscillococcinum almost daily, no gastrointestinal or other flus have occurred. No side effects have been experienced by any of the patients from the daily use of the Oscillococcinum.

Dosage Issues For Boiron Oscillococcinum

There is a widespread belief that harm will come of using homeopathic remedies on a daily basis. This comes from experiences of the use of “nosode” remedies, the most common type. These nosode remedies are very small doses of a substance that in larger amounts, have the potential to cause the sort of symptoms that the small doses of it are meant to treat. In contrast, Oscillococcinum is a “sarcode” remedy, and this caution does not apply (11). Sarcode remedies come from healthy tissue or a health promoting substance that the patient may be deficient in, and daily dosing is considered to be safe. So, the fact that Boiron Oscillococcinum is a sarcode remedy, supports the experiences of the above patients, and the view that there is no reason at this time to believe that daily use could be harmful (though it should be remembered that this is not the type of use that the manufacturer recommends nor the FDA has approved, due to lack of research).

Some may find that alternate day or less frequent doses might work. However, the anecdote given above, with the patient being exposed to an illness and getting sick immediately after skipping one day of the Boiron Oscillococcinum, might suggest there is the potential that it might not always work if less than daily doses are used. Increasing the dosage frequency when one knows one is being exposed is an option, however, often one is exposed before one can possibly know. One of the studies of Oscillococcinum showed a better result in flu symptom reduction, the sooner the remedy was begun (10). This indirectly might be viewed as tending to support the idea presented here that daily use may be better, since this ensures the early use of the remedy in the course of an exposure to a virus, as well as prior to exposure. But it should be repeated, that this is not the view of the researchers or the manufacturers, since there are no controlled studies regarding daily use for prevention.

The best amount to use each day is uncertain, but it seems to make sense, on general principles, to use the least amount that is effective. For some, cost might be a problem if larger doses were taken daily. Taking a few pellets each day means each vial will last as long as 2 weeks or more. The experiences of the above patients, was that 2-10 pellets daily was sufficient, but further research is necessary. In order to maximize the effect of the smaller dose, it might be helpful to have the pellets remain dissolving in the mouth for some time (e.g., 10-15 minutes), and be sure not to eat or drink anything other than water very near the time one takes it. It may be that some people might require larger doses than others, or even twice daily doses, due to coexisting conditions or the general state of their immune system.

Relevance for Influenza, Colds and Other Influenza-like Illnesses

Since these observations were made between June and November, it is unlikely that the above patients were exposed to influenza. However, it might be supposed, based on the popular use of Oscillococcinum for prophylaxis in France mentioned above, that it may work in the same way for the prevention of influenza as it has for gastointestinal flus, as discussed here. It may be that Oscillococcinum works against flu-like illnesses because birds, like ducks, are susceptible to the same illnesses and there is some factor transferred via this duck-derived remedy. In this case, since West Nile virus and bird flu are also found in birds, one might speculate that there might be some protection from those viruses. Of course, this is purely theoretical and one should still take other precautions to protect oneself from West Nile virus and other viruses.

It should also be mentioned that an experience of the first patient using Oscillococcinum for prevention as described above suggests that the protective effect of Boiron Oscillococcinum does not apply to colds, since this patient got a cold when on daily Oscillococcinum alone. Thus, although the manner in which Oscillococcinum works is unknown, the observation that it did not protect against a cold might be a clue to its mechanism of action. It supports the view that it does not work by a general upregulation of the immune system so that all viruses are protected against, but rather, Oscillococcinum only works against certain types of viruses. Perhaps, this occurs in a manner somewhat similar to a vaccination. Of course, its means of action must differ significantly from standard vaccination, for several reasons, including the apparent need for frequent doses in order to prevent the illnesses observed here.

Conclusions

For those who are healthy and who only occasionally have a cold or flu, daily or alternate day use of a preventive remedy is probably unnecessary. However, healthy people might decide to use the preventive remedies when a contact is ill or during certain seasons of the year, or when an upcoming event makes their staying well especially important.

But for those who have frequent colds or flus, or who may suffer severe consequences from them due to other medical conditions, this information has great potential, if research bears it out. The reduction in suffering due to the illnesses and their complications, not to mention the economic savings due to lost work, could be enormous. Readers, especially doctors, researchers, or patients with careful records of their illnesses and other factors, who try either or both of these approaches, are encouraged to send accounts of their experiences to the Editor (email: jcwat101@aol.com). Perhaps these can be compiled and used as a basis to encourage scientific studies of these strategies in the future.

It should be remembered that the remedies may tend to work less well under some circumstances, such as when the user is under stressful or sleep-deprived conditions. However, in the cases discussed here, there were periods of at least moderate stress and occasional mild sleep deprivation, and the patients still did not get sick when the appropriate preventative strategy was being used.

Based on this limited anecdotal data, neither preventive strategy alone seems to be sufficient to protect against colds and flus of all types. It may be that for some patients the optimal strategy would be to use both the very low dose sublingual and intranasal alpha interferon and the Boiron Oscillococcinum. The patient with chronic fatigue syndrome described above, who’s experiences were most extensive, used both preventive strategies during the majority of the past 6 months and found no problem with combining the two approaches. It is possible that since both approaches theoretically could protect against the most serious influenza-like infections, that this combination approach will be doubly protective against these more serious illnesses. However, until more data verifies their effectiveness, patients using these new strategies should probably also use standard prevention methods for influenza and other viruses, when available. And despite what would seem to be a low potential for harm, research is needed to be certain that the benefits outweigh any unforeseen side effects in various patient groups.

Editorial Note (August 12, 2006): For my views on the probable cause of the immune dysregulation responsible for frequent colds and flus, and conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, see the transcript of a talk I gave before a Support Group in 2005. I give an overview of a new approach, called the Marshall Protocol (also see http://AutoimmunityResearch.org), which should address the underlying cause of the immune dysregulation.

References

(1) Fauci, AS, and others, editors: 1997. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. McGraw Hill.
(2) Hayden FG, Albrecht JK, Kaiser DL, Gwaltney JM Jr: Prevention of natural colds by contact prophylaxis with intranasal alpha 2-interferon. N Engl J Med 1986;314:71–5.
(3) Douglas RM, Moore BW, Miles HB, et al: Prophylactic efficacy of intranasal alpha 2-interferon against rhinovirus infections in the family setting. N Engl J Med 1986;314:65–70.
(4) Waterhouse, JC: A Cold Remedy that Really Works? CISRA’s Synergy Health Newsletter, Update #2, January 10, 2000, Chronic Illness Support and Research Association, P.O. Box 70166, Pasadena, CA (www.members.aol.com/SynergyHN)
(5) Locke, A: The Family Guide to Homeopathy: Symptoms and Natural Solutions. 1989. Prentice Hall Press, New York, NY.
(6) www.boiron.com and the studies referred to at the site.
(7) Casanova, P. et al. The evaluation of 100 randomized observations of oscillococcinum/placebo in the influenza syndrome, Manuscript available from Boiron. 1983.
(8) Casanova, P. Gerard, R. A study of the therapeutic action of oscillococcinum in influenzal syndromes. Manuscript available from Boiron. 1985.
(9) Ferley, JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar, Balducci, F: A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndromes. Br. J. Clin. Pharmac. 1989;27:329-335.
(10) Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, Burkard G, Bengel J, Lehrl S, Belon P. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: A placebo-controlled double-blind evaluation. Br. Homeopathic J. 1998;87:69-76.
(11) Dr. B. Brewitt, researcher on the use of homeopathic doses of growth hormone (www.biomedcomm.com); describing daily use of sarcode remedies on “Your Own Health and Fitness” Radio Program, see kpfa.org’s radio archives.

*Oscillococcinum is a registered trademark of Boiron Inc., Newton Square, Pennsylvania.

Disclaimer: All articles provided on the SynergyHN website are for information only and are not intended as medical advice. An effort is made to be accurate, however readers are advised to verify what is presented here and check with their own doctors. No guarantee of accuracy is expressed or implied. Neither CISRA nor the author receives any funding or income from any organization or manufacturer connected with the topics discussed.

Written by synergyhn

October 29, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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