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Coughs and sneezes: dealing with cold and 'flu this winter

December 9th 2011

Whether you battle on with a cold or succumb to full blown ‘flu, nobody wants to suffer from viral illnesses this winter.

 

Cold and ‘flu are spread through air borne droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These droplets can travel about one metre and the virus can survive for up to 24 hours on surfaces or in the air. Anyone who touches a surface or breathes in the droplets, can contract a cold or flu. It’s important to remember to wash your hands regularly to reduce the chance of infection.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. It is, however, possible to boost your immunity and decrease the severity of cold viruses by having a healthy lifestyle. A diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables will help stave off colds, as will taking regular exercise. Although it is often thought that eating lots of vitamin C-rich foods and echinacea or taking zinc lozenges can prevent or cure colds, there is little evidence to support this. If you catch a cold, paracetamol can be used to reduce symptoms such as headaches, earache or a sore throat. Decongestants can be taken to relieve blocked noses. Many people find it helpful to inhale steam to clear a blocked nose. You can do this by pouring boiling water into a heatproof bowl and then place a tea towel over your head and breath in the steam. Menthol crystals can be added to the water to clear the sinuses. You are able to reduce sore throat symptoms gargling with warm salty water every evening.

‘Flu is not a bad cold; it is a different illness and is generally more severe than a cold and gives a much wider range of symptoms. Seasonal ‘flu (or influenza) is caused by the ‘flu virus. Symptoms include fever (a temperature of 38°C or above), chills, aching muscles, limb or joint pain, upset stomach, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. ‘Flu can make you feel incredibly tired and can affect you for up to two to three weeks.

The best way to deal with ‘flu is to rest, keep warm and drink plenty of liquid. It is also advisable to avoid strenuous activity. Paracetamol can be taken to lower a high temperature and ibuprofen can be used to deal with aching muscles. Consult a pharmacist to get advice on taking pain killers. It is important to call your GP in the first instance if you have ‘flu-like symptoms and are 65 years of age or over, pregnant, have a long-term condition or a weakened immune system. If you’ve had persistent symptoms for more than 5-7 days, it may be necessary to arrange an appointment to see your GP. This is because ‘flu can be more serious for these groups of people. There is no cure for ‘flu but in some cases or during a pandemic GPs might prescribe antiviral drugs. However, they cause many side effects so the prescription is only given if completely necessary.

It is important to remember that antibiotics do not cure or relieve the symptoms of ‘flu or colds. Antibiotics are used to treat illnesses caused by bacteria, and ‘flu and colds are caused by viruses.

There are also several ways to reduce the likelihood of you developing ‘flu or other viral illnesses this winter:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet, before preparing food, after sneezing, blowing your nose, or coughing, or after touching used tissues or handkerchiefs
  • Do not share towels and flannels
  • Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated with the virus. It is best to use a bleach-based household cleaner
  • Wash any clothing or bedding that could have become contaminated with the virus
  • Always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose
  • Discard used tissues as soon as you can and clean your hands afterwards
  • It is important to have plenty to drink and, if you feel the need, paracetamol for any fever or aches and pains
  • It's best to let the illness run its course and your body usually fights off the infection within a couple of days
  • If further medical advice is required, do not visit but telephone your GP or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647

If you are in an at-risk group, your GP will offer you the ‘flu vaccine. It is advisable to get a ‘flu jab every year, as the viruses which cause ‘flu regularly mutate to form new strains, so the vaccine is accordingly updated every year. The best time to have a ‘flu jab is between September and early November. If you fall into the following categories, contact your GP to discuss getting the free ‘flu jab:

  • People over 65
  • People with long term illnesses
  • People with lowered immunity
  • Pregnant women

For more information on colds and ‘flu, visit www.nhs.co.uk.

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