As the weather turns cooler, colds and flu start to appear in our neighbourhoods. Our workplaces and schools fill with the sounds of coughing, sneezing and sniffling noses. But why is it that the flu is more prevalent in cooler months? And what can we do to protect ourselves?
It’s a good idea to understand the difference between a cold and influenza (the flu) so we know how to treat it and how long it will last. According to Dr Ruchi Gupta, a General Practitioner in Sydney’s lower north shore, symptoms and duration are the key to decoding your afflictions. “A cold is a viral infection that affects your upper respiratory system, and usually starts with a sore throat, moves on to a runny nose and then nasal congestion,” says Dr Gupta, “Usually there isn’t a fever, or any body aches or pains.”
“The flu is also a viral illness that usually affects your upper respiratory tract, and is much more debilitating than a cold – you get symptoms of fever, body aches and pains, and it generally lasts longer,” says Dr Gupta. “The flu can last for anywhere up to three weeks.”
Why flu season and winter coincide
The flu virus is carried on air-borne, respiratory droplets that can be ingested by those around someone who is coughing or sneezing. The cooler weather provides an environment in which the virus can stick around for longer. “Studies have shown that the virus seems to survive better in the winter, maybe it’s the lower humidity — it just seems to be more stable in winter,” says Dr Gupta. “Also, a lot of people tend to stay indoors, with windows and doors closed to keep the warmth inside, and this contributes to the virus being more prevalent.”
Staying healthy during the flu season
Lifestyle factors like getting enough sleep, exercise and having a good diet can help anyone build their immunity against illness. It seems that over-the-counter vitamins and supplements may not necessarily help stave off or decrease the duration of flu-like symptoms. “There’s no evidence to support the idea that vitamin C, or herbal remedies like Echinacea, make a difference to whether someone will get the flu,” says Dr Gupta. “If you’re eating well, you don’t need to take vitamins.”
It can be helpful to avoid others who appear to have the flu, but Dr Gupta recommends a universal precaution like regularly washing your hands is one of the best preventative measures. “I work in an environment where I see sick people every day, and I touch them because I have to examine them, but I wash my hands between every single patient or otherwise I’d be very sick.” She adds that alcohol-based hand sanitisers are effective, and can be used when soap and water aren’t available. “You might even want to carry one in your bag. A little one can be useful so you can use it any time you don’t have access to soap and water,” says Dr Gupta.
All about the flu vaccine
There’s not one single type of flu – there are a many strains of the virus and they’re constantly changing. Some age groups will be more affected by certain strains. “In 2017, there were two main strains of influenza A and B. Influenza A seemed to affect the older age groups, those over 80 years old, and Influenza B affected children aged five to nine years old,” says Dr Gupta.
Both the Centers of Disease Control in the United States and the World Health Organisation study the evolution of the different strains and develop a flu vaccine each year. According to the Queensland Government, the flu vaccines available in Australia are developed based on that research, and are available through general practitioners and some pharmacies.
“The flu vaccine will help your body develop anti-bodies against the flu virus,” says Dr Gupta, “but it will not give you the flu. It’s scientifically impossible for it to do that. Although, as with other vaccines, the flu vaccine can have some side effects which includes a mild fever, or pain, or a bit of swelling and redness at the injection site. You may experience some flu-like side effects, but they will be minimal. Getting the vaccine is a way to prevent it spreading to others who already like the elderly, pregnant women and people with a pre-existing medical condition.”
According to the Department of Health, the flu season has already begun and often peaks in August. Thus, it is the perfect time to get your flu shot now.