There’s no such thing as a touch of ‘flu!
The common cold
The common cold is well named – it is, indeed, extremely common. In any year (and mostly in winter) all of us are likely to suffer from several fairly mild infections affecting our upper respiratory tracts – runny nose, sore throat and dry, tickly cough without shortness of breath. These are usually caused by virus infections, and although we feel miserable with them, they go away on their own within a few days. There are hundreds of different viruses that cause coughs and colds, which is why, even if your body fights one off and you become immune to its effects, there is always another one round the corner.
Influenza – so much more than a bad cold!
The influenza virus, like the cold virus, usually affects your upper respiratory tract, causing
- runny nose
- sore throat
- dry, harsh cough.
The influenza virus also gets into your bloodstream, causing
- high fever (above 38 degrees C and often up to 39 degrees)
- aching all over, including in your muscles and joints
- feeling hot and cold in turn, with episodes of shivering uncontrollably
- feeling generally extremely weak for several days
Colds and ‘flu – what’s the difference?
Although they affect similar parts of the body, the influenza virus makes you feel much more ill than the common cold – there is no such thing as ‘mild’ ‘flu or ‘a touch of ‘flu’. Unlike the common cold, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to get out of bed, let alone function normally, when you have ‘flu. I often ask people if they feel so ill that if they saw a £50 note on the pavement in front of them, they would feel well enough to pick it up. If the answer is yes, they have a cold – if the answer is no, they have ‘real’ flu.
Colds and flu – what’s the treatment?
Because both colds and ‘flu are caused by viruses, there is no cure for them – antibiotics only work for bacterial infections, not for virus infections. The anti-virus medicines that have been in the news for treating swine flu – Tamiflu and Relenza – may shorten the length of infection by a day or two, but no more. If you get any warning symptoms (see below) you should always consult your doctor straight away.
In the meantime, the old adage of ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ is one old wives’ tale to take with a pinch of salt. If you have either a cold of ‘flu, you probably won’t feel like eating, and it won’t do any harm not to eat much for a day or two. Drinking plenty of fluids, on the other hand, is vital. Other top tips include:
- regular paracetamol or ibuprofen (for aches and fever)
- Echinacea and Pellargonium sesoides may relieve your symptoms and speed your recovery
- If you’re invited for a ‘flu jab (for instance, if you’re over 65, or have heart, lung or kidney problems or diabetes), do get it – it reduces your risk of getting real ‘flu, although it won’t protect you against colds.
Colds and ‘flu – when should I worry?
Most healthy people will recover from colds, and even ‘flu, on their own. Sometimes, ‘flu in particular can cause complications like pneumonia. This is a particular risk if you’re over 65 or have heart disease or diabetes, and especially if you have long term lung problems (emphysema or chronic bronchitis). You should always see your doctor if you have any concerns, or if your symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain when you breathe (rather than when you cough)
- coughing up blood
- headache with neck stiffness or not liking the light
Otherwise, take to your bed, drink lots of fluids, take regular paracetamol and get someone else to do all the housework until you’re better!
A word on Pneumococcal disease
Most people at high risk of complications from ‘flu are also at higher risk of pneumonia, blood poisoning or meningitis from a germ called pneumococcus. Fortunately, a single immunisation every 10 years will protect you against this. Do check with your GP or nurse if you think you might be eligible.
Stopping smoking – you can do it!
We all know it’s bad for us – but all too many of my patients just keep making excuses to avoid trying to quit. Smoking hugely increases your risk of chronic lung disease and heart disease – and both of these in turn raise your chances of getting serious complications from ‘flu. It’s never too late to stop and the benefits are almost immediate – you could really cut your chances of a nasty chest infection before Christmas if you quit now!
If you need more convincing, visit quitwithhelp.co.uk. This new online campaign does much more than provide details of how and where you can access free NHS smoking cessation services- getting support more than doubles your chance of quitting successfully. It also offers support and inspirational stories from people just like you who’ve succeeded in quitting for good.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.