It’s that time of year — the weather gets cold, the heating gets turned up and my waiting room fills with sniffling patients. Unfortunately, most of them don’t need to be there as there’s no specific medical treatment for their colds and flu, but recent research carried out to support a Treat Yourself Better campaign (treatyourselfbetter.co.uk) really put some meat on the bones of this problem.
One in six adults said they would choose to visit their GP or local accident and emergency department as first port of call for their winter snuffles rather than seeking advice from their local pharmacy. The survey also highlighted that people underestimate the normal duration of winter ailments and so visit their doctor too early. Nine in ten people expected a cough to last for around a week when it can often last three times that long, and eight out of ten thought flu symptoms lasted ten days or less when in fact two weeks is normal.
It doesn’t help that there are more than 200 different cold viruses and it’s likely that most of us will catch at least one or two colds every year. A dry, scratchy sore throat is often the first sign followed by a runny nose, fatigue and loss of appetite.
Flu, by contrast, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by the influenza virus and each year up to 15 per cent of us will catch it. Unlike a cold, flu symptoms start suddenly and are more severe — high fever, extreme fatigue and aches are all common traits.
Colds and flu are highly contagious. The virus is airborne, so every time a sufferer coughs, sneezes or talks germs are spread. The virus can also be transferred by hand contact, so it is important to wash your hands regularly.
The flu jab is free to those 65 and over, as well as at-risk groups, and is your best protection against flu, which is a serious illness and can lead to hospitalisation or even death. The flu jab contains no live virus, so it cannot give you flu, but can keep you well every winter. The virus changes every year, so you need to be vaccinated every year. Just because you haven’t had it before doesn’t mean you’ll be OK this time. Having the jab means you can’t give flu to friends and family. Flu is highly infectious — 100,000 flu particles can be projected into the air with one sneeze — and is an unpleasant experience, resulting in fevers, chills, headaches, aching muscles, sore throats, runny noses and extreme fatigue.
Colds and flu myths abound and I’ve heard them all, but the usual suspects I hear in my waiting room are as follows
MYTH Antibiotics cure colds and flu.
FACT Antibiotics are only suitable for the treatment of bacterial infections and do not work on viruses such as those that cause colds and flu. You will only be prescribed antibiotics if the cold turns into a secondary infection such as bronchitis.
MYTH You catch a cold or flu from someone sneezing on you.
FACT You’re more likely to be infected with a cold by touching a door handle, tea towel, or a handrail on the bus that’s been contaminated by the virus. Shaking hands also passes on germs. Once your fingers have been contaminated and you rub your eyes or nose, the virus will invade your body. However, with flu, people can become ill if they breathe in droplets containing the influenza virus that have been sneezed or coughed into the air.
MYTH Feed a cold, starve a fever.
FACT Never starve yourself! Nutritious hot drinks and soups (rather than solids) are what you need. Hot liquids increase the temperature in the nose and mouth and help kill viruses off more quickly.
MYTH If you go out with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold.
FACT It is now thought that you may actually be able to catch a cold by getting cold. When we shiver, our whole body becomes stressed, which depresses the immune system. We have bugs in our nose all the time, and when the immune system drops its guard, these seize their chance.
MYTH You can catch the same cold twice.
FACT Once the cold ends, your body has built up immunity which will protect you from catching the same virus again.
MYTH Resting will help banish a cold.
FACT Gentle exercise and fresh air are more likely to speed your recovery from a cold. But if you come down with flu, go to bed! Rest is essential to help you get better.
More than ever, I am reminded of Jonathan Swift’s saying that ‘The best doctors in the world are Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merryman’ — sound advice at any time but especially in this season of coughs and colds.
Top ten tips to help get you through the season
1. Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and plenty of garlic and onion, they can help fight infections.
2. Drink lots of water. It will keep your body hydrated, and also flush out toxins.
3. Drink less booze. Too much can lead to vitamin deficiencies, which can affect your immune system and ability to fight infection.
4. Get enough sleep – it’s the body’s natural way of recharging its batteries.
5. Drink tea. Green tea is one of the richest sources of antioxidants, so it’s great for giving your immune system a boost.
6. Relax more. When your body is under stress you are more susceptible to viral infections.
7. Don’t touch your face. The cold virus is often carried on the hands.
8. Get moving! Exercise is the perfect way to give your immune system a boost.
9. Blow your nose with disposable tissues – this reduces the risk of infection.
10. Get a flu jab