Worried about corona-virus - what about flu?
The corona-virus outbreak in China is prominent in the news at the moment and has now had a bigger impact than the SARs outbreak of the early 2000's. Corona-virus is a class of virus, with many variants, with this one predominately causing fever with respiratory issues such as cough which can develop into breathing difficulties and shortness of breath in some people. While this is obviously of concern and the government guidelines regarding contact with others should be followed if you have returned recently from an at risk area (bit.ly/2SwoG4l), currently the situation in the UK seems to be well controlled.
However, there are some simple steps which we can all take to stop the spread of viruses such as this and the advice is probably more relevant to common colds and flu for UK residents. As a osteopath and pharmacist I have extensive experience of advising patients on the best ways to avoid and treat viral infections.
Colds and flu are common at this time of year and although neither are pleasant, there is a difference between colds and flu in terms of the severity of the symptoms. Both may leave the sufferer with a fever, blocked or runny nose, headaches, muscle aches, body aches and general feelings of tiredness but the symptoms of flu tend to be more severe, with sufferers feeling unable to get out of bed - it's often said that if you wouldn't get out of bed to get a £20 note from he floor outside your window then you've probably got flu, if you would it's more likely to be the common cold.
But how to avoid them?
Other than permanently shutting yourself in a sterile clean room it's impossible to completely take away the risk of picking up a cold or flu. In most cases these illnesses are self limiting and will clear up in a week or 2, but are not at all pleasant while you have them. It's important that we try to limit the spread of these viruses from both an personal level and also for our communities.
Viruses such as these are spread by droplets from sneezing or coughing and from surfaces that these droplets land on so the most effective way of preventing spread is basic hygiene measures.
Ensuring that you cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze will certainly help to limit the spread of the virus and should be taught to children as well.
Hand washing is also key. If you have a cold or flu, regular hand washing will help reduce the spread of virus from hands to surfaces. In addition, as we go about our day to day lives we touch many surfaces and making sure that we thoroughly wash our hands before handling any eating or food prep is essential to stop transfer into our mouths.
Hand washing is best done with normal soap and water, ensuring that all surfaces of the hand, palms, backs, between fingers, and up onto the wrists are thoroughly washed and dried.
Drinking enough fluid is also important. Insufficient water intake will result in dehydration, and, particularly during the winter when we are in heated houses with dry air, this can lead to the mucous membranes of the mouth and particularly the nose drying out. These membranes, and the mucous that they produce have a really important role in trapping particles and preventing infection. If they are dehydrated then they are much less effective.
It is also important to keep the immune system in tip to shape. A good, healthy, varied diet which includes plenty of fresh fruit and veg is key to this however it can be worthwhile adding supplements if you are deficient in any specific vitamins or minerals or currently unwell. Antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin C and E along with the minerals Zinc and Selenium are important for a strong immune system and while the appropriate amounts can be obtained from diet alone it is often the case during illness that we don't feel like eating much, at which point a supplement could be considered.
What about vaccination? The flu vaccination changes from year to year as the predicted strains of flu virus expected to be prevalent each year also changes. The NHS advise that certain groups of people have a vaccination - such as the elderly, the immuno-compromised, those with chronic respiratory conditions for example. The success of the vaccination appears to vary from year to year, depending on how accurate the predictions have been.
For those outside these groups there is usually the option to purchase the vaccination from your local pharmacy. Whether you do or not is a personal choice and depends on your own attitudes and beliefs regarding vaccination. The vaccination will usually claim to protect from 3 or 4 strains of flu but will not stop you from getting other strains or the common cold.
When you have a cold or flu the importance of good hydration and nutrition is just as important. Often there is a loss of appetite and food loses its taste at these times so this can be difficult. Simple food is often the best and broths are brilliant for both nutrition and hydration. Bone broths and the legendary chicken soup are great and vegetable broths can also be useful additions. Boosting mineral and vitamin intake can also be useful.
The best way to get over colds and flu is to rest and allow the body's immune system to do its job.
Now - a couple of things not to do.
Don't go to the GP
It may seem to be the obvious thing to do but going to the GP when you have flu will increase the likelihood of spreading the virus while you are sitting in the waiting room. However if you are an otherwise healthy person there is little value to a GP appointment. Antibiotics are ineffective against a viral infection so will not be prescribed anyway. The most effective way to recover is to rest, drink water and get good nutrition and wait for the symptoms to go.
But what about fever? Isn't that dangerous? Well some rise in temperature is a mechanism the body uses to help fight the infection and is a completely normal part of the process. Normal body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius and slightly above this will not cause a problem. Paracetamol is very good at controlling temperature and can be used for a couple of days to make you feel more comfortable, as long as you are able to safely take paracetamol - check with your pharmacist if you are unsure.
Having said that please do seek medical attention if you have a high temperature (generally in excess of 39C) that can't be controlled with paracetamol or if you have breathing difficulties. In these cases it is important to get the appropriate attention.
The other time to seek medical attention is if you have another condition which affects how your immune system works - if you are having chemotherapy treatment for cancer for example. In these cases it may be prudent to contact your specialist team or GP and follow their advice.
Don't go to work or social occasions
Try to stay away from other people while you are ill. Flu is best controlled by stopping the spread to others. By keeping to yourself while you are unwell the risk of spread is much reduced. As you need rest in order to recover this will benefit you as well. Let's face it you're not going to enjoy yourself much or be as effective if you are feeling rubbish anyway so best just to stay away!
So what about this corona-virus - should you be worried? Well, at the time of writing there have been 8 confirmed cases of corona-virus in the UK and measures are being taken to quarantine travellers coming into the country who may have been in contact with the virus. The World Health Organisation have declared it a public health emergency and while the risk in the UK would still appear to be low it would be wise to take the sensible hygiene measures outlined here.
Ian is an osteopath, registered with the General Osteopathic Council, and a pharmacist, registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council, and has extensive experience advising the public on measures to avoid and manage symptoms of cold and flu.