Flu Vaccination vs ‘Common Cold’ Prevention
A flu vaccination will not protect us from a cold. Nor will precautions against a cold necessarily protect us from the flu. However understanding the similarities and differences between the cold and flu may offer the best protection of all.
The flu and a cold are both respiratory diseases involving viruses. Viruses are smaller than bacteria and need a living host to survive and multiply. The cold and flu are spread by people coughing or sneezing and by contact with contaminated surfaces. However the virus types and symptoms of each are varied, and consequently, diagnosis and treatment can differ.
Contributors to flu or cold
The cold and flu are caused by contagious viral infections, that affect the respiratory tract. This respiratory tract is divided into the upper and lower airways. The openings of the nose and mouth are at the upper end, with the lungs at the lowest point, and the voice box roughly indicating the division of the two airways.
The ‘flu’ is another term for the ‘influenza virus’, a known respiratory virus. It is a highly contagious disease that consists of several types, some of which are seasonal. The strains of the seasonal variety circulate each year, with most of the flu species causing severe symptoms. There are subtypes, such as bird and swine flu as well as a type known as pandemic influenza.
Colds are not caused by just one virus, rather over 200 varieties are known, which may explain why the cold is probably the most common infection worldwide. This ‘common cold’ tends to be milder than the flu, comes on gradually and generally doesn’t lead to serious health complications.
How does the cold or flu spread?
Think of all the places you have been today and the surfaces you have touched. Then think of all the people who have touched those surfaces before and after you.
For example surfaces on public transport, a classroom, office or any place where people gather in an enclosed space – the perfect incubators for both cold and flu bacteria. By simply touching a surface and then touching your face or nose, the cold or flu virus can be transmitted.
A person talking, sneezing or coughing can spread the cold or flu via tiny droplets that contain the virus. These droplets can be inhaled by other people or land on their mouths, noses or other surfaces that are then touched.
In general, viruses are better able to survive on non-absorbing, hard surfaces like stainless steel and plastics, compared to porous surfaces like tissues and fabric. They can also exist for several hours as droplets in the air, with low temperatures and enclosed spaces increasing their survival time. Once on our hands though, the amount of flu virus reduces to low levels after about 5 minutes.
The affect upon the body
The common cold is also known as an upper respiratory infection, affecting the nasal passages and throat. Although a cold usually lasts between a few a days and a fortnight, it can develop into a more serious condition that affects other areas of the respiratory system, with conditions such as sinus infection or bronchitis.
The flu is more serious and bad enough to put the fit and healthy out of action, with a fever that can see someone in bed for days. The biggest threat is that those infected will pass it onto others that are vulnerable, such as children, pregnant women, the elderly or those with chronic conditions.
Just like the cold, a flu virus enters the body via the mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes or nose. It makes it’s way down the respiratory tract, that being the nose, throat, and lungs. Once there the influenza virus binds to cells that line the lung airways, known as epithelial cells. It then penetrates and hijacks these cells to replicate its viral particles, that are released to invade the healthy cells that surround.
This replicating of cells and the immune response to the infection, cause most of the symptoms of the flu. How well the body responds to this threat and the amount of damage caused to the lungs can vary, meaning that the flu will affect everyone differently. An existing lung disease, age or use of immunosuppressive drugs are factors that can prolong infection and cause greater lung damage.
While the flu is normally contained in the lungs, the natural immune response that takes place can have side effects. Although they tend to make people miserable, the upside is that these effects are the result of the body trying very hard to combat the spread of the virus in the lungs, while killing infected cells.
Once the virus has run the course of infection, the lining of the respiratory tract that contained these epithelial cells must repair and regenerate. Regeneration can take up to a month, with a cough and weakness persisting for up to a couple of weeks after infection.
Of course, those whose health is vulnerable can find if either a cold or flu virus persists, some types of pneumonia, lower respiratory conditions, or complications involving other chronic conditions can arise.
Do I have the flu or a cold?
As the common cold and flu share many symptoms such as a sore throat, coughing, and fatigue, it can sometimes be hard for the average person to determine which one they have, based on physical features alone.
As a general rule for the flu, follow the FACTS. That is fever, aches, chills, tiredness, and the sudden onset of intense symptoms. Often a headache or nausea is present, and with children they may experience vomiting or diarrhoea.
A cold on the other hand tends to involve sneezing, along with nasal congestion or a runny nose, with a fever sometimes present in younger children.
Knowing the difference between a cold, flu or otherwise, can be tricky. For example, a high fever is a symptom of both influenza and pneumonia, yet rare for a cold in adults, however, may be a symptom for a cold in children.
When symptoms are of concern, a course of action can be best determined by a consultation with your doctor. Trouble breathing, severe chest or sinus pain, disorientation or a prolonged high fever are all good reasons to see your GP. This is especially so for those who are vulnerable. Children should see a doctor if showing severe signs such as a high fever that lasts more than a few days, bluish skin colour, wheezing, stomach pain or other things that are out of character, like difficulty waking up or irritability.
Treatment for a Common Cold vs the Flu
Treatment for a common cold is simple unless of course there is an underlying chronic respiratory condition such as asthma. It usually involves staying warm, resting, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding things that would aggravate the condition such as sudden temperature changes or smoky areas.
Plenty of over the counter cold medicines are available and these may include antihistamines, analgesics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, decongestants or cough suppressants.
Some people prefer to ease the symptoms of a cold using foods such as garlic, ginger, honey or zinc lozenges. There is debate as to the effectiveness of home remedies but al least they may offer some comfort or shorten the illness. Besides if it doesn’t work, a fresh orange juice or chicken broth is still healthy.
Should these aforementioned measures not resolve the symptoms of common cold within a couple of weeks, it is best to consult your doctor. A GP should definitely be consulted if symptoms become worse over time, if swallowing or breathing becomes difficult or if a fever lasts more than three days.
Similar rest and recuperation measures are in order when dealing with the flu. As a known respiratory virus, the virus is able to be treated with vaccination, but that is dependant on the current level of infection and is best used as a preventative measure ahead of time.
Reducing the spread of cold and flu
To reduce the chances of contracting or spreading the cold or flu virus, sneeze or cough into a tissue and dispose of immediately. When a tissue is not available, then best to use fold of the inner elbow. Avoid shaking hands, and if contact is made with someone or a public surface, then washing hands often can mitigate against transmission of the virus.
On average we touch our faces about three thousand times a day, so there are plenty of opportunities for a cold or flu virus to be transmitted to our nose or mouth, and transported into the respiratory system.
Basic hygiene will reduce the chance of a virus spreading, like the washing of hands before handling food or drinks or after sneezing. It’s hard to avoid touching a handrail on public transport, but sharing drinking glasses, utensils, pens or keyboards are other things that can help keep a common cold or influenza at bay.
If you do contact the flu virus then avoiding contact with others by staying home will afford others protection from infection. It also allows greater opportunity to rest, something much needed in overcoming a viral infection.
Once well again, exercise, a healthy diet and a good amount of sleep can be used to improve resistance to these viruses, while maintaining general health.
Preventative measures through vaccination
The job of vaccines is to target specific viruses or bacteria. Due to the large variety of ‘common cold’ viruses, there is currently no way to create a vaccine that could prevent illness. Further to this colds usually go away on their own and don’t generally cause serious complications. So although a nuisance, costly research looks to be better spent on illnesses such as the flu, that have a greater impact on peoples health.
Prevention for colds encompasses the previously mentioned methods to prevent its spread and like the flu, quality sleep, rest and a healthy diet will help. Continuing this once recovered and adding in plenty of exercises will assist in strengthening the immune system while making it easier to fight off infections in the future.
Heading into the flu season requires some forward planning other than maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is especially so for those that are vulnerable to the flu, that being those who are over 65 years of age, pregnant women, those with certain medical conditions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 15 years of age and children from 6 months to 5 years of age. Fortunately, people who are in these categories are eligible for government-funded vaccinations. Those who are not vulnerable are able to purchase the vaccine privately, dependent on the stock available.
The Influenza Vaccine usually become available at the end of March or early April each year, well before peak season of the flu, from around June to September. The Australian Government currently recommends that each year, everyone over the age of six months of age has the flu shot. More information can be found here at Queensland Health.
Like all vaccinations, immunisation against the flu provides protection via ‘Herd Immunity’ since it is more difficult for the diseases immunised against, to spread. Note that all flu vaccines provided in Australia are ‘inactivated’, meaning that they are not infectious. A few hours after being vaccinated, there may be side effects similar to early signs of the flu, sometimes lasting one or two days. These effects will go away once the body’s natural immune response to the vaccine has taken its course.
Medpods Medical Centre provides a range of immunisation and vaccination services. Whether it is childhood vaccination as part of the National Immunisation Schedule or vaccinations for your next trip overseas, our GP can discuss and plan appropriately for your needs.
Please call reception if you require more information on 1300 250 815 or require an appointment, alternatively you can book online.
Medpods Medical Centre does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. Medpods Medical Centre provides this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Patients are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Department.
Source: Queensland Government website