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Column originally published Dec 4, 2007

Tips On Managing Colds And Flu

Question: I am a university student. Last winter, I was sick twice with colds and flu, and had to miss school and work for several weeks. I thought the flu shot would prevent me from getting the flu, but it didn’t. It is that time of the year again. Can you tell me how I can prevent and cure the colds and flu this winter?


I am sorry to hear that you were sick so much last winter. Many Canadians get sick like you every winter. This is the reason why there are so many over-the-counter medicines for colds and flu. However, many of them are not very effective, and some may even be harmful.

It is very important to understand that when people say that they are sick with colds and flu, most of the time they are not talking about the same medical conditions. Colds are infections of the upper respiratory tract caused by hundreds of respiratory viruses. The symptoms of colds include low-grade fever, congestion in the nose, running nose, sneezing, and sore throat. These symptoms are usually mild, and the illness should last no more than a few days. Complications are uncommon.

Flu is a term that has been used by many when they don’t feel well. Stomach flu is a virus infection of the stomach and intestines, giving the symptoms of abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. There are many viruses that can infect our stomach and intes- tines. One of them is called Norwalk virus, which has caused severe outbreaks in nursing homes and cruise ships.

The real influenza is caused by a specific group of influenza viruses, some of them infect humans, while others infect birds and other animals. The symptoms of influenza include fever, headache, running nose, cough, lethargy, and sometimes aching all over the body. When you compare the symptoms of colds and influenza, you can see that influenza is like having a bad cold. Some people end up becoming very sick, and complications like pneumonia can be fatal, especially in the very young and in the elderly.

The viruses that cause colds and influenza seem to spread more easily during winter months. The cold viruses can easily spread from person to person, but it doesn’t produce epidemics. Influenza viruses, on the other hand, tend to cause outbreaks in many communities every winter. We know influenza is around when many children in schools are sick and absent, or when seniors in nursing home develop fever, cough, and pneumonia.

Both cold and influenza viruses are spread from person and person through sneezing, coughing, and blowing of the nose. The infectious viruses are present in secretions from the respiratory tract. When a person sneezes and coughs, a cloud of tiny drops that is invisible to naked eyes comes out for about one meter (or three feet) from the person. If you are close enough, you may breathe in some of the droplets and get infected.

When a person blows his nose, mucus can get on his hands and he thus spreads the virus without knowing it. The infectious droplets from his cough can also land on things around him. When you touch these contaminated items or his hands, the infectious virus can get on your hands. If you start rubbing your eyes or nose, or touch the food that you eat, you can get infected without being in close contact with a sick person.

You can now see how easy it is to spread viruses, especially in the winter season, when we are mostly indoors and in close contact with each other. However, you should not overly worry and isolate yourself from everyone because you don’t want to get sick. We can’t avoid shaking hands with others because we worry that they may have germs on their hands.

A few sensible steps can significantly reduce your chance of picking up virus infections in winter: wash your hands before you eat, and avoid rubbing your eyes and nose with your hands. It is also a good idea to maintain a healthy lifestyle: getting restful sleep at night, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, maintaining physical activity, and drinking lots of water.

There is no vaccine that can prevent you from getting colds. Influenza vaccine, commonly known as flu shot, can help to prevent or reduce the severity of influenza infection. Every year, the World Health Organization gathers a group of scientists to select the strains to be included in the influenza vaccine. Based on the strains of influenza virus circulating around the world, 3 strains are selected. Sometimes the influenza viruses that actually infect us are different from the strains included in the vaccine. As a result, the protection may not be as good. Most of the time, those who received the flu shot have milder illness than those who didn’t. Flu shot has been shown to reduce the severity of influenza as well as complications like pneumonia, especially in seniors.

If you do get sick, rest is very important. it is much better to get rested and recover quickly instead of continuing to attend class and work, and get your body more run down, and, in the meantime, spread your virus around and make other people sick. A day or two of rest can help you recover faster.

There is no medicine that can treat the viruses that cause colds. There are two medications that can actually fight the influenza viruses. Tamiflu, which comes as pills, and Relenza, a powder medicine that you breathe into the lungs, are useful to treat influenza infection if given within two days after onset of disease. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to see a doctor that soon, and it is hard to know whether someone actually has influenza or some other virus infection.

Some of the symptoms of cold and influenza can be treated with medicine. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen is safe to treat fever. Do not use aspirin if you have influenza, it can rarely cause a severe liver disease.

If your nose is quite congested, you can use a decongestant nose spray to open the sinus passage and prevent sinus infection. Cough medicine doesn’t work too well, and it is not good to suppress cough. Cough is our body’s natural mechanism to remove mucus from our lungs. Drinking lots of fluid can keep the mucus moist and soft and easier to cough up.

Sometimes it is hard to know when one should see a doctor. If you have a lot of cough, especially if you find it hard to breathe, you may have more than just a cold or influenza. If your cold symptoms last more than a week, or if you feel that you are getting sicker than you should be, you should see your doctor. Sometimes complications like sinus infections and pneumonia can develop, and you will need antibiotics to treat these bacterial infections.

Most of the time, however, colds and influenza will just run their course. You need to be patient, and rest your body while you are sick. I hope you have a better winter than last year.