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Colds, Influenza & The Flu Vaccine; Fact from Fiction

Colds & Flu's Explained

The terms colds, flus and ‘flu like’ illness are used so interchangeably that it can be hard to understand the difference. A recent rapid increase in influenza cases, including the tragic death of a young child, is having a significant impact on our health service and the health of the population. But how do you know if you have a just a cold or the flu?

The common cold and influenza are both caused by viruses

Cold viruses (e.g. RSV) are unpleasant but self- limiting conditions with symptoms rarely lasting more than a week to 10 days. Complications are uncommon in otherwise well people.

The influenza virus (flu) is most common in winter months with epidemics (outbreaks) occurring each year.

The exact strain of the flu virus circulating varies from year to year (there are many different subtypes or ‘strains’ e.g. H1N1)

The flu causes at best an unpleasant and debilitating short term illness and at worst it can potentially be fatal.

Flu symptoms:

Real influenza once experienced is seldom forgotten. It hits like a truck!

Classical cold symptoms affecting nose, throat and chest and headache will follow a very sudden onset of high fever (>38C) , fatigue & muscle pain.

Symptoms will last up to 10 days to 2 weeks and typically even a fit, well adult will be required to have bed rest, may lose weight and be unable to work.

For those who are more vulnerable; the elderly, the very young, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases or underlying medical conditions that weaken the immune system: complications of influenza can be very serious.

Because flu (and the common cold) is caused by a virus it cannot be treated by antibiotics – however antibiotics may be needed for complications of flu such as bacterial pneumonia.

In those most at risk, respiratory complications such as sudden breathing difficulties and secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia are the most severe. There are many cases of intensive care admissions and some deaths each year related to this.

The majority of those who die during flu outbreaks are elderly (80 – 90% are over 65).

What to do if you have the flu?

Thankfully most people who get the flu feel very unwell for 2 weeks then recover with simple measures such as fluids, bed rest and analgesics like paracetamol or ibuprofen to control fever and help with discomfort. Ideally it is best to avoid a doctor’s surgery or hospital which can contribute to spreading the outbreak. Coughing , sneezing and touch can transmit the flu virus.

However for those in the ‘at risk’ groups it may be wise to seek a medical opinion. Some are recommended to take antiviral medication at the initial onset of the illness and others may need assessment to see if there is any evidence of complications from the illness such as dehydration or pneumonia.

The Flu Vaccine

As with most things prevention is better than cure.

The flu vaccine is available every year from the autumn and is highly recommended for all in the ‘at risk’ groups which includes pregnant women for whom it is considered safe in all trimesters. For most of these people the vaccine itself is free (although there may be a small cost to administering the vaccine in some cases)

As the strain of flu vaccine varies from year to year a new vaccine is brought out each year that is felt to be the best match for the 3 or 4 most likely circulating flu viruses that season. A significant epidemic, like the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 which was responible for more deaths that World War 1 comes about once a century on average and unfortunately we are soon overdue! Vaccination is the best prevention against this.

All of us have met someone who ‘got the flu’ after their flu vaccine. While it is true that getting the vaccine is not 100% protection against the flu it is safe to say that the flu vaccine does not give you the flu. Many people have a minor reaction of short lived fever or aches and pains for 24-48 hours after a vaccination. This is the body’s natural response to the vaccine and indicative of a healthy immune system at work. Flu vaccines are given at the most common time of year for all colds and flu like illnesses and so it is not uncommon for people to catch one of these other viruses in the weeks around having received the vaccine. Everyone’s underlying health is individual and may effect how well a vaccine takes and some years the expert’s best guess at which strain to protect against is wrong all reasons for the vaccine to be less than effective from time to time.

The important thing to remember is that a new vaccine is needed each year and that all people in the ‘at risk’ groups, at least, should avail of it. For more advice on how to keep well over the winter months please see our previous articles on this topic. Simply click here to find out how to beat the cold and flu. for useful information.

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