Colds and flu – winter health advice
A lot of people use the terms cold and flu (influenza) interchangeably. There is a difference!
Colds are very common and there are many viruses that cause them. There is no cure for a cold but there are things you can do to relieve the symptoms. It usually takes about a week to get over a cold.
The Flu is also a viral infection but is much worse. It can be like a really bad cold but can also be more serious and have other complications. There is no cure for the flu either but vaccination is available. The flu usually lasts for one to two or more weeks.
I like to say “If you can walk easily in to the pharmacy and tell me you have the flu, you don’t have the flu, you have a cold”.
Sore throat common sometimes
Runny nose/sneezing common sometimes
Headache rare common
Aches/pains mild common,severe
Temperature rare common
(38C or more)
Cough common, mild common,severe
Extreme tiredness no common
How do you catch a cold or flu?
Even though you are more likely to get these in winter you can’t get a cold or flu by being out in the cold weather or not drying your hair. The viruses that cause these are spread by fluids from coughing and sneezing. As people are usually in closer contact and inside more in winter they are more likely to spread their germs to others.
How do you keep a cold or flu to yourself?
Prevent the spread of germs! Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow if you need to. Wrap up the tissue and put it in the bin so no one else comes in contact with it. Wash hands with warm water and soap and dry well after using tissues. Stay away from others, particularly in close contact, until coughing and sneezing lessens.
How do you NOT catch a cold or flu?
There is no vaccination for a cold so germ prevention is it. There is a vaccination that is available each year from about March or April for the flu. The vaccination contains different strains (four strains from 2017 onwards) based on what will be the most likely ones around each year. The process for choosing the strains is complex and important. Not everyone needs to be vaccinated against the flu however the elderly and those with certain medical conditions should be. Adults who are too busy to be struck down with the flu can also be vaccinated. Vaccination gives a high level of protection and makes the illness less severe if it is still contracted.
Cold and Flu treatment
Firstly antibiotics do not help as colds and flu are viruses and antibiotics don’t have any effect on viruses. They are only used if a secondary bacterial infection develops.
There is an antiviral medication that can be obtained on prescription from the doctor that may shorten the duration of illness but this needs to be started in the first two days.
Cold and Flu preparations can help you feel better while your immune system overcomes the infection. These preparations contain decongestants to dry up mucus in the head and they have pain relief. Night time preparations also contain an antihistamine that helps with congestion while assisting with sleep. There are also decongestant nasal sprays.
Liquid preparations are available for children over the age of two to help clear up congestion. Paracetamol (eg Panadol) and ibuprofen (Nurofen) are only of use if there is pain or temperature. They do not help with runny noses. An elevated temperature when sick is a sign that out body is fighting the infection.
Vapourisers put moisture in to the air and really help when anyone is trying to sleep with a cold or flu. I have been using these since my children were babies and have two in case both are sick at the same time. For adults ,during the day, you can boil water to put in a bowl and inhale this with a tea towel over your head to clear the sinuses. Often times this results in a need to blow a lot of stuff out of your nose or use a saline spray to help it out!
Resting and drinking water are also important to help our bodies fight the infection and to replace fluid that is lost through sweating with high temperatures.
Things that aren’t true!
X Antibiotics can be used to treat a cold or flu. This is NOT true because antibiotics work against bacteria and colds and flu are caused by viruses. In fact taking antibiotics inappropriately just increases the risk of antibiotic resistance (a topic for another post) which means antibiotics can become less effective when they are really needed.
X The flu vaccination can cause the flu. This is NOT true. There are different types of vaccinations and the flu vaccination does not contain “live” flu virus therefore it is not possible to get the flu from having the vaccination. It is possible to be exposed to the flu virus days prior to being vaccinated and contract it then. It is also possible to be exposed to a strain of flu virus that is not in the vaccination and so get the flu from that. It is a very complex process to choose the strains that go in to the vaccination and these are the ones that are most likely to be around but as this process must occur prior to winter so that the vaccinations can be made there are occasions where a strain will enter an area or country and cause widespread infection because it was not possible to predict eg bird flu, swine flu.