How to stay healthy while those around you don’t Each year and Beat The Bugs, particularly around this time, the common cold strikes, setting off a storm of sneezes, sore throats and aches and pains. In the meanwhile there’s an onslaught of flu doing its rounds, bringing fever and fatigue to the masses. While it’s almost impossible to escape exposure, you can take steps to stop these viruses from knocking you out this winter.

Cold Vs Flu

Often people ask why you should get a flu vaccine you know that you have the potential to get a cold anyway. The answer, the experts all agree, is simple. A flu vaccine protects against flu and not the common cold. There is a common misconception that colds and flu are the same thing. But this cannot be further from the truth, explain local pulmonologists. Currently there are over 200 different strains of colds, while there are only three important strains of flu. You may feel terrible when you have a cold, but you will recover within five to seven days. Flu, on the other hand can be deadly.

As Dr Arien van der Merwe, author and specialist in natural healthcare, explains, “Flu can mimic a cold in many ways. Both are respiratory infections caused by viruses. While a cold may sometimes lead to secondary bacterial infections of the middle ear or sinuses, flu can lead to a potentially life-threatening complications such as pneumonia.”

Colds usually begin slowly, she adds, two to three days after infection. “The first symptoms are most likely a scratchy sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose. Temperature is usually normal or only slightly elevated and a mild cough can develop several days later,” she adds.

Dr Shaun Hutchinson, a homeopathic practitioner, agrees. “The common cold has an incubation period of 36 to 48 hours, so if you haven’t started to show symptoms by then, you will probably not get sick.”

Signs of flu, on the other hand, explains Van der Merwe, are more sudden and usually start with a headache, dry cough and chills. “The symptoms quickly become more severe than those of a cold. The flu sufferer often experiences extreme exhaustion, with muscle aches in the back and legs. Fever of up to 40 degrees C is common, and this will usually by the second or third day, when the respiratory symptoms such as nasal congestion and sore throat appear.” She adds that fatigue and weakness can continue for days or weeks after the onset. Van der Merwe believes that the prime time for cold is in autumn and winter. “Contrary to popular belief, the increased incidence of colds during this time is not due to the cold weather.” With people spending more time indoors owing to the drop in temperature, there’s greater opportunity for a virus to spread. Plus, the warm, dry air is a haven for mutating viruses to thrive in.

The mucous lining of your nasal passages are there to help keep the nasties out, but when these dry out, the gateway for entry is wide open, making you more susceptible to infection. “People also tend to eat few salads, and less fruit, and more soups and stews, with a resulting decline in intake of antioxidants and other immune-boosting phytonutirients,” she adds. Hutchinson explains that the most common misconceptions surrounding the common cold include the myths that to be susceptible, you have to have a weakened immune system: that becoming cold or chilled can lead to you getting a cold; that having cold symptoms are good for you, as they help you get over the common cold and therefore you shouldn’t treat the cold; and lastly, that drinking milk while you have a cold will increase the amount of mucus your body produces. These, he adds are all fallacies that need to be challenged. If you do succumb to a cold this winter, the experts agree that there is not much you can do, except treat the symptoms with natural or pharmaceutical remedies. “Getting over a cold is always going to be an unpleasant process,” Hutchinson adds. Left untreated, your cold can last 10 days to two weeks, while treating the symptoms will not only leave you feeling better, but will help lessen the severity and length of your cold.

The Flu Vaccine And How It Works

Professor Robin Green, head of paediatric pulmonary at Pretoria University, believes that the single most important thing you can do for your health this winter is to have the influenza vaccine. “I myself take the flu vaccine every year, and nothing else,” he adds.

He explains that there are currently three important flu strains. “These flu strains undergo subtle mutations every year, known as Antigentic drift, and it occurs because of the re-assortment of nature, usually in wild birds.”

Professor Charles Feldman, head of pulmonology at Wits University, concurs. He adds that every year scientists and doctors research and analyse any potential strain mutations. Scientists at the World Health Organisation supply the information to the manufacturers of the flu vaccines, who then match the strains used for the vaccine with the circulating strains.

“We generally will know in the October beforehand what mutations to expect, and how serious the flu season will be,” says Feldman. He adds that we are at a distinct advantage, as our cold and flu season comes to on the tail-end of the Northern hemisphere, which also helps the doctors with their predictions.

Ideally, you should get the vaccine in early autumn and doctors now suggest as early as February. But you can have the vaccine at any stage during winter, provided you have not had the flu. Within two weeks of receiving the vaccine, your body will produce antibodies which help fight the virus once you are exposed. This aims to both prevent infection and reduce the severity of symptoms.

Research shows that the vaccine can prevent flu in 70 to 90 percent of cases, and if infection does occur, it can help reduce hospitilisation by 70 percent. The vaccine has also proven to reduce workplace absenteeism by more than 50 percent. Children can be vaccinated from the age of six months (they get half a dose) and doctors recommend that children between the ages of six months and five years adults aged 65 and older and those who have heart disease, respiratory problems or chronic conditions, should be vaccinated.

Prevention And Cure

Feldman believes that the most effective way to protect yourself from getting sick is to ensure healthy living. “Eat well, take the right vitamin and mineral supplements and exercise. Normal healthy living is the best way to keep your immune system strong.”

Fellow pulmonologist and Head of Intensive Care at Johannesburg Hospital, Professor Guy Richards adds that in his experience, the term “boosting immunity” is a misnomer to a degree, as there is very little you can do physically to boost your immunity. “The only true way is to enhance your while blood cell count, ” he says. He adds, that this will increase your body’s chance of fighting off infection.

However, there are things that you can do to help improve your overall health, which in turn gives you a better chance of fighting off infection. Hutchinson suggests that you increase your antioxidant nutrients. “Especially important is vitamin C, and I suggest you take a minimum of 1000 mg/day, but you can take up to 3000 mg/day. Other important antioxidants are vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc and selenium. You can find antioxidant supplements that will have all of these in a single tablet or capsule, he adds.

“Sneeze etiquette and hand-washing after making contact with an ill person can help. Try to avoid sick children,” suggests Green. Richard concurs. Children, particularly those in a daycare or school environment are prone to sharing any bug or virus that they come into contact with. Researchers estimate that a child can pick up an average eight different viruses within the first year of daycare. This is often due to germs being transferred onto their hands from runny noses and coughs, which are in turn transferred to the surfaces they touch.

Hutchinson adds: “My personal secret to staying healthy during this season is to continue with regular exercise; eat healthily, especially lots of raw fruit and vegetables and to take antioxidant nutrients. If I start to get any symptoms suggestive of a cold, I begin to take 20 drops of olive leaf tincture and 1000 mg of vitamin C every two hours, as this usually nips it in the bud.” If you do succumb to a cold, Van der Merwe suggest that you stay in bed. Not only will this help prevent the spread of your germs, but you will also recover a lot quicker. Your immune system is exhausted, too tired to fight the foreign invaders, all because of your hectic lifestyle. So take a break and relax.”

Natural Alternative

“The osteopathic philosophy states that your body has an inherent ability to heal itself,” explains Dr Guy Ashburner, a Cape Town-based osteopath, on behalf of osteopathic profession. Ashburner recommends osteopathic treatment, as it can help your body both fight infection, and shorten the duration of illness. This is done by improving blood flow and lymphatic draining; decreasing irritation of the nervous system; addressing muscle spasm and pain and promoting a sense of wellbeing and relaxation. Explains Ashburner: “The symptoms of a cold are caused by viruses embedded in the tissues of that nose and throat. Our body responds by creating watery mucus which translates into a runny nose.”

He adds that viruses attach and take control of healthy cells, causing inflammation and irritation of the surrounding sympathetic nerve. “These irritated nerves send messages to the brain that they’re irritated, causing tight muscles and soreness in the related areas of the spine, namely the upper back and neck. The increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system also results in the production of thick, slow-moving mucus which, in turn, leads to congestion and further discomfort”.

Osteopathic treatment aims at addressing the tight muscles and areas of the spine, which will help normalise the function of the nervous system. Ashburner explains that as the nerves become less irritated, the muscles will relax and the mucus thins out, becoming easier to clear. He adds that osteopaths will use various techniques to do this. “Whatever techniques your osteopath considers appropriate, the goal and end result of the treatment are the same – to improve functioning of the immune system and support the healing processes of the body.”