Body & Fitness

Germ warfare

With winter comes nasty colds and flus – here’s how to protect yourselfCold, flu … they’re just different words for the same thing, right? Wrong. While both illnesses have several symptoms in common, the flu is a much more severe ailment. They are two very different things and the flu can be potentially very dangerous for some people.

How do you know if it’s a cold or the flu? It’s a cold if you have a build-up of mucus, you can’t stop sneezing and your eyes are streaming. You may also have a sore throat and a mild cough. The symptoms probably came on gradually and although you’re tired, you’re not exhausted. It’s the flu if you have similar symptoms as those stated above but they came on quickly and your tiredness is extreme. You’ve got a fever but can’t stop shivering and shaking, your head is pounding and your body aches all over. You may also have a dry, rasping cough. Basically, you feel absolutely terrible. You don’t have to have all of the above symptoms to have the flu or you may have symptoms that start out mild, becoming more severe later.

**What is influenza?

**Influenza is a serious viral infection that is highly contagious. It’s spread when someone infected coughs or sneezes, sending contaminated droplets out into the air. These are then breathed in someone else. You can also get it by touching a surface that has infected droplets on it and then touching your nose or mouth. The symptoms appear within one to three days and are a sign that your body is fighting the virus. It usually starts in the nose and throat, then spreads throughout the body.

The flu can affect anyone, even those who are usually very healthy. But it is particularly dangerous to those who risk developing serious complications, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. High-risk groups include people over 65 and anyone else with chronic diseases such as respiratory disease (including asthma), diabetes, cancer and cardiac and renal disease.

Every year a number of New Zealanders die from complications of the flu. In the 1990s it was an average of 34 people a year.

What can I do if I get the flu? What you’ll most likely want to do is head straight to bed and that’s exactly what you should do – rest is crucial. Stay in bed until you feel better and are no longer feverish, which could take as long as a week. other things you can do include:

  • Drink lots of fluids, such as water, fruit juice and cordial. Avoid tea and coffee as they may dehydrate you further.

  • only eat if you’re hungry – choose food that is light and not greasy, such as soup.

  • Take over-the-counter medications for pain and fever.

  • Ask your doctor about anti-viral medication. This can reduce the length of time it takes you to get over the flu but needs to be taken within 48 hours of the symptoms appearing. It’s not subsidised by the government though, so you’ll need to pay for it. Antibiotics won’t work as flu is a viral infection – they’re only any good if you also develop a bacterial infection.

Should I be immunised against the flu? The influenza vaccine provides the best protection against the flu. It doesn’t matter how fit and healthy you generally are, you can still get the flu, and if you’re not usually very healthy, the complications can be devastating. To have a natural immunity to the flu, you need to have previously had the particular strain that is currently doing the rounds. This is unlikely, because the virus strains keep changing every year.

The vaccine given to New Zealanders is changed each year. Its components are based on information from authorities like the World Health organisation about the strains of influenza most likely to affect this country. While no vaccine is 100% effective, according to the National Influenza Strategy Group the flu vaccine is 70-90% effective in preventing the illness in healthy adults. For those who are vulnerable to illness, it reduces the risk of being hospitalised by 50% and dying by 70%.

The vaccine works by stimulating the immune system to make antibodies that protect against the virus. You can’t get the flu from the vaccine because it doesn’t contain any live viruses.

The flu vaccine is free for high-risk Kiwis, including all over 65-year-olds and those with chronic conditions, but only during some months. To see if you qualify for a free vaccine visit www.moh.govt.nz/influenza or call 0800 IooUNE (0800 466 863). For more information about immunisation, visit www.influenza.org.nz.

What if it’s a cold?Colds last around two or three days and while you will feel awful, a cold isn’t likely to cause serious illness in healthy people. The best thing you can do is go back to basics – getting lots of rest, wrapping up warm and drinking plenty of fluids. over-the-counter medications can help with symptoms like a cough or runny nose. If you don’t feel better after a few days, or start feeling much worse, see your doctor.

Note: Children under 15 should never be given aspirin when they have a cold. It can lead to the development of a condition called Reye’s Syndrome.

Did you know…? one of the best ways of preventing a cold or flu is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially if you have been in contact with surfaces that have been touched by lots of other people, ie door handles, hand rails or Eftpos terminals. And if you’ve got a cold, think about others – always cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze into a tissue.

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