Feel the sniffles coming on? Here's how you can tell if what you're experiencing are the first symptoms of the common cold or influenza. More commonly known as the flu, influenza is a contagious illness that can affect anyone. Caused by the influenza virus, it attacks the entire respiratory tract including the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. Colds, on the other hand, affect only the upper respiratory tract. A runny nose, sneezing and throat irritation are the most common symptoms.
Influenza, however, is marked by more pronounced symptoms that include high fever, sore throat, cough, headaches, body aches, loss of appetite, chills and even fatigue lasting up to two or three weeks. A stuffy nose, sneezing and nasal discharge are also common. What's more, flu can lead to life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and meningitis (an infection of the lining that covers the brain).
So what can you do to protect yourself from the flu? It helps to know how the virus is spread: from person to person through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs, spits, sneezes or speaks; or when a person touches a contaminated surface (such as a doorknob) and then touches his nose or mouth. Good personal hand hygiene can help cold and flu causing germs at bay. Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser:
You should also avoid touching your face (eyes, nose and mouth) as these are common places germs enter the body. A healthy lifestyle can also help build up your immunity against the flu virus. You can do this by eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising for at least 30-minutes five days a week, getting enough sleep and rest, and by putting down that cigarette if you smoke.
Treating The Flu
If you have trooped down to our GP's clinic at the first sign of a sniffle and expected the doctor to prescribe you antibiotics - well, you wouldn't be the first one to think that antibiotics are some sort of "miracle cure" for the flu. But the truth is that antibiotics are pretty useless when it comes to fighting the flu virus. Antibiotics are meant to fight infections caused by bacteria, not a virus, which is what the flu is. In fact, taking antibiotics when they are not needed can actually increase your risk of getting an infection later that might resist antibiotic treatment!
However, there are antiviral medications - such as Tamiflu or Relenza - which can treat flu by decreasing the ability of flu viruses to reproduce. But these antivirals are only effective if taken within the first two days after a person gets sick. They are also only prescribed during epidemics or pandemics, to stop the spread of particularly deadly flu strains such as H1N1. Most of the time, a doctor will just prescribe you medicines to treat the symptoms of flu, such as paracetamol for fever, cough medication for cough, and nasal decongestants or antihistamines for blocked or runny noses.
Getting the Flu Shot
The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. According to a fact sheet on seasonal influenza released by the World Health Organisation, the flu vaccine can prevent 70 to 90 per cent of influenza-specific illness in healthy adults and prevent complications for the elderly.This annual flu shot can be taken by anyone who wants to reduce his or her chances of getting the flu. It is also highly recommended by for high-risk individuals who are more prone to flu complications, such as pneumonia. Those at risk for complications include:
Doctors say that getting the flu vaccination will not only prevent seasonal influenza and lessen the severity of flu-like illnesses, but also indirectly help your doctor narrow down the type of flu you have come down with.