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Colds and Flu: Truths and Myths

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 6 minutes read

It’s that time of year - the temperature goes down, the heating gets turned up, and people start to sniffle and sneeze with colds and flu-like illnesses.

It doesn’t help that there are over 200 different cold viruses and it’s likely that most of us will catch at least one or two colds every year. A dry, scratchy sore throat is often the first sign followed by a runny nose, fatigue and loss of appetite.

Flu, by contrast, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by the influenza virus and each year up to 15 percent of us will catch flu. Unlike a cold, the symptoms start suddenly and are more severe – high fever, extreme fatigue and aches are all common traits.

Colds and flu are highly contagious. The virus is airborne, so every time a sufferer coughs, sneezes or talks, germs are spread. The virus can also be transferred by hand contact, so it’s important to wash your hands regularly.

Healthwords Top 10 Tips

Here at Healthwords we know how colds and flu can spoil the season, so if you want to do your best to help keep them away this winter, here are our Top 10 Tips to help get you through:

  1. Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day – they are great for boosting your immune system. A portion of fruit includes one medium-sized whole fruit or three smaller fruits, for example oranges or dried apricots. Keep bugs at bay by eating plenty of garlic and onion. Known for their antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties they can help fight infections. And, if you don’t like garlic in its natural form, it is also available as a supplement.
  2. Drink lots of water, especially if you spend a lot of time in centrally heated spaces or have a cold or flu. Not only will it keep your body hydrated, but it will also help to flush out toxins. Hydration is key.
  3. Limit the amount of alcohol you consume. Too much can lead to vitamin deficiencies, which can affect your immune system and your ability to fight infection.
  4. Get enough sleep – it’s the body’s natural way of recharging its batteries. So, if you start to feel under the weather, help your body to recover by getting more sleep.
  5. Drink tea. Green tea is one of the richest sources of antioxidants, so it’s great for helping you to beat winter bugs and giving your immune system a boost.
  6. Relax more. When your body is under stress you are more susceptible to the viral infections that cause coughs, colds and flu, so keep calm and stay healthy.
  7. Don’t touch your face. The cold virus is often carried on the hands and then enters your body through your eyes, nose or mouth. So, minimize the risk of catching a cold by washing your hands regularly. To get rid of germs, rub your hands together vigorously with lots of soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds.
  8. Get moving! Exercise is the perfect way to give your immune system a boost.
  9. When blowing your nose use disposable tissues that are then safely disposed of – this reduces the risk of infection.
  10. Get immunized against flu. A flu vaccination can protect you from contracting the flu virus.

The flu vaccine

In the US the flu vaccine is free to most people and is your best protection against flu, which is a serious illness and can lead to hospitalization or even death. The flu vaccine contains no live virus, so it cannot give you flu, but it can keep you well every winter. The virus changes every year, so you need to be vaccinated every year. Just because you haven’t had it before doesn’t mean you’ll be OK this time. Flu is highly infectious - 100,000 flu particles can be projected into the air with one sneeze – and is an unpleasant experience, resulting in fevers, chills, headaches, aching muscles, sore throats, runny noses and extreme fatigue.

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MYTH: Antibiotics are the only way to cure colds and flu.

FACT: Antibiotics are only suitable for the treatment of bacterial infections and do not work on viruses such as those that cause colds and flu. You will only be prescribed antibiotics if the cold turns into a secondary infection such as bronchitis.

MYTH: You catch a cold or flu from someone sneezing on you.

FACT: You’re more likely to be infected with a cold by touching a door handle, tea towel, or a handrail on the bus that’s been contaminated by the virus. Shaking hands also passes on germs. Once your fingers have been contaminated and you rub your eyes or nose, the virus will invade your body. However, with flu, people can become ill if they breathe in droplets containing the influenza virus that have been sneezed or coughed into the air.

MYTH: Feed a cold, starve a fever.

FACT: Never starve yourself! Nutritious hot drinks and soups (rather than solids) are what you need. Hot liquids increase the temperature in the nose and mouth and help kill viruses off more quickly.

MYTH: If you go out with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold.

FACT: It is now thought that you may actually be able to catch a cold by getting cold. When we shiver, our whole body becomes quite stressed, which depresses the immune system. We have bugs in our nose all the time, and when the immune system drops its guard, they seize their chance.

MYTH: You can catch the same cold twice.

FACT: There are around 200 cold viruses and, on average, we catch a couple each winter. However, once the cold ends, your body has built up immunity which will protect you from catching the same virus again.

MYTH: Resting will help banish a cold quickly.

FACT: Gentle exercise and fresh air are more likely to speed your recovery from a cold. But if you come down with the flu, go to bed! Rest is essential to help you get better.

This winter

Although many people are talking about a 'super-cold' circulating at the moment that is worse than a normal winter cold, there is very little actual evidence this is the case. It is much more likely that people are catching one of the many viruses that cause colds at this time of year and have either not had a cold for some time - so have forgotten how miserable the symptoms can be - or have an immune system that is still recovering from all the sheltering we did during the COVID pandemic and so a cold can feel worse than normal. It does not appear at the moment that this year is a particularly bad year for colds and flu compared to previous years, but it must be remembered that the New Year can be the peak time for these to occur.

Typical symptoms of a cold include a temperature, headache, fatigue, nasal congestion and a cough with most people slowly recovering with simple treatment, staying well hydrated, keeping warm, and resting over 7 to 10 days. Unlike a cold, flu symptoms tend to be more severe and develop more quickly.

If you have a simple cold but do not have a temperature or feel particularly unwell, there is no reason why you cannot go to work provided you practice good hygiene when at work. Seek medical advice about cold symptoms if they suddenly become worse, your temperature becomes very high, you do not get better after 3 weeks, if you feel short of breath or develop chest pain, or if you have a weakened immune system or underlying long-term health condition such as diabetes.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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