People often ask, what’s the difference between the common cold and the flu? How can I avoid getting ill before an important competition or exam like everyone around me? Is it as simple as not going outside in the cold with wet hair? Here we give our top tips for avoiding the flu.
Influenza or “the flu” is a viral infection that occurs in the spring or winter and is caused by a respiratory virus that affects the lungs and the upper airway. The viruses are split into two groups – type A or Type B and they are constantly changing to beat the human immune system. Symptoms include high temperature (fever), headache, sore throat, aching muscles, and general fatigue.
There are types of stomach flu that cause diarrhoea or vomiting but these are different to the respiratory flu and should not be confused. There is a vaccine against the flu that is administered to vulnerable populations at the start of the winter period and this is very effective. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the common cold, just rest and time!
The common cold, unlike the flu, is caused by a virus and there are hundreds of different types that may be responsible. It is usually associated with one or more of the following symptoms; a mild (or no) fever, a mild headache, a sore throat, a blocked or a runny nose and a cough. Treatments are used to address the symptoms and not the cause and often include medications such as analgesics (e.g. paracetamol, acetaminophen or ibuprofen), decongestants (such as pseudoephedrine) or an expectorant (e.g. guaifenesin) to help shift the mucus.
Antibiotics are rarely required as the common cold is not caused by a bacterial infection in the initial stages but this may develop over time. There are certain complications that can develop as a result of a common cold such as sinusitis, pneumonia or throat infections but these are rare.
Because both the common cold and “the flu” are transmitted in the air particles and are transferred from person to person very easily, it is not possible to guarantee that you will not suffer from one of the conditions, however here are some top tips to try and keep them at bay:
1. Hand hygiene
Ensure you wash your hands regularly and especially if you have been touching your mouth or nose and if you have been coughing or sneezing. The viruses are transmitted from person to person in the air and in mucus particles and therefore it is vital to clean your hands using anti-bacterial soap to kill the viruses and the bacteria (if it is a bacterial infection as well). It is recommended to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds effectively remove all bacteria and viruses from the hands. You can also use anti-bacterial gels and lotions to be even more thorough.
2. Warm clothing
Ensure you wear warm clothing including plenty of thin layers to minimise heat loss that may cause fluctuations in your body temperature. It is also important to remove wet clothing as soon as possible and change to dry clothes, again help thermoregulation (monitoring of body temperature).
A healthy and nutritious diet including daily recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals – The immune system is the human’s body natural defence mechanism and it is vital to keep it in tip-top condition. Eating certain vitamins, such as C and D and reducing refined sugar intake can all interfere with the immune system, whilst garlic has been shown to improve immunity. Ensuring you are well hydrated is part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and is also effective for supporting the immune system. Finally, zinc lozenges have become a popular solution to both avoid and treat colds with some encouraging evidence.
4. Don't get coughed on
Cover your mouth when sneezing and/or coughing – for the same reasons as mentioned in point 1. The common cold and flu are transferred from person to person in the air particles and therefore forming a physical barrier to these by putting your hand over your mouth. When there is a high chance of expectorating (coughing up) mucus or air particles carrying the virus, such as coughing or sneezing.
5. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol also has a direct detrimental effect on the immune cells themselves and therefore increases the vulnerability of the body to contract viruses such as the flu.
6. Get enough sleep
It is well documented that sleep is vital to allow the bodily functions and systems to recover and reset themselves for the next day and alcohol can cause more restless nights and interfere with this vital part of the 24-hour cycle.
Finally, a very important piece of advice is not to exercise if you are suffering from a cold or the flu, especially if you have more of the flu-like symptoms affecting the body rather than just the head. Fever can affect the regulation of body temperature and therefore it is dangerous to exercise in this state of health as it may cause the body to overheat. In summary, you can develop serious complications from exercising whilst in apyrexial (fever) state and these include developing sudden acute heart conditions.