‘Tis the season to be sneezing…

by Dr Lerato Masemola

Winter happens every year without fail. And with it comes the dreaded “flu”. This year “the flu season” started early with what seemed to be never ending rains in March bringing cold weather prematurely. Here is what you need to know about colds and flu so you are better prepared to avoid or treat it more effectively.

What is a cold/ flu:

People often refer to what we call a “common cold” as “flu” and this is incorrect. They are both caused by viruses. A simple common cold is caused often/ mainly by a class of viruses called “rhino viruses”. Symptoms are usually slow in onset (few days) and affect mostly the upper respiratory tract (mainly nose and throat) and may last generally from a week up to three weeks. There is no cure for the common cold, but one may treat symptoms. This type of infection is usually mild and self limiting.

The word “Flu” came about the fact that the infection is caused by a class of INFLUENZA viruses.

This type of infection is more debilitating, the symptoms  usually have a quick onset (12-24 hours), and can affect the whole body (fever, general body pains and respiratory symptoms). There may even be associated complications such as pneumonia and meningitis in the very young, very old, those who are immune compromised and sometimes even in otherwise fit and healthy people. For a true influenza infection, antiviral agents are effective in limiting severity and complications but must be given early. The illness is ultimately self limiting.

There are many types of the Influenza virus, but the common one for this year is that which is included in this year’s influenza vaccine, which are from the Influenza type A family: H1N1- like virus and H3N2 – like virus (commonly known as “bird flu” or “swine flu”). They cause the most severe symptoms and disease. Included in the vaccine also is an Influenza virus type B – like virus

Why in winter?

These type of viral infections and especially a coryza/ common cold are the most frequent infectious diseases due to the easy way they spread:

-        “airborne droplet-spread” .. meaning what we breathe in through our upper airways (nose and mouth). So someone who has an infection will spread this via talking, coughing and sneezing.

-        Also spread via touch/ direct contact, so hand-to-hand AND hand-to-surface-to hand. The viruses can survive up to 18hrs on surfaces.

They do occur more in winter because of a number of factors which include:

-        It is speculated that some of the viruses that cause colds are seasonal, occurring more in cold and wet weather

-        Cold weather causes changes in the respiratory system, making it more susceptible to infections.

-        The cold/ cooler weather also lowers the immune system, so it becomes weak to fight of even simple infections (body temperature has to be a certain level for different functions to be at their optimum, and extreme cold temperature will cause certain functions to slow down)

-        Air is dryer in winter. This allows viral droplets to spread farther and to stay in the air longer than usual.

-        People spend more time together in close proximity and indoors (overcrowding), near infected people (schools, offices, restaurants etc). Daycare/ crèche seems to be a big culprit because of the close proximity of many children, with an immune system that is still developing, and inherent poor hygiene of children. These children often bring infections home. Then the adults take the infection to work. And the cycle continues

How to prevent/ treat:

You should strive to be generally healthy all the time. Make sure your immune systems are as strongest as possible. Follow simple hygiene practices such as washing hands with soap frequently. Eat healthy, exercise and supplement diet with appropriate vitamins where necessary. Certain vitamins and minerals have been shown to help in maintaining or boosting the immune system over the years. These are Selenium, zinc, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Some of the B Vitamins, especially B6 and Vitamin D. Other immune boosters may be found in foods such as garlic and ginger.

I also recommend immunizing against the influenza virus as this is more debilitating than the common cold viruses. This is done by getting a flu shot/ vaccine BEFORE the winter/ flu season starts. Vaccines are generally available from end of Feb/ beginning of March. It is not too late to get your vaccine if you haven’t done so already.

Someone who wants to avoid catching the cold may not be able to stop/ control the “breathing” type of spread but sure can avoid the “contact” type by making sure hands and working surfaces are kept clean always.

When you contract the infection, treat the symptoms early on to try prevent symptoms getting worse unnecessarily (home remedies, over the counter medications). It is also your responsibility not to spread it. Stay home UNTIL you are well/ at least first few days as that’s when the infection is most contagious and that is when your body needs the rest to fight the infection. Wash hands frequently, cough/ sneeze into sleeve and not hands. If you use a tissue, throw it in a bin that has a lid. Handkerchiefs are not so hygienic.

If your symptoms don’t resolve or subside considerably with home remedies within a 3 to 7 day period then I suggest you see your doctor. It is not always necessary to take an antibiotic as influenza is a viral infection. However, if your doctor thinks you have a concurrent bacterial infection s/he may prescribe an antibiotic for you. Please remember to complete the course!!

Remember that the best medicine here is prevention. Keep healthy. Take your supplements. Wash hands and clean surfaces regularly. Don’t cough/ sneeze into hands. Rest as much as you can when you are sick!

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