When it comes to understanding, preventing and treating colds and flus, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. We spoke to Dr Brian Morton, general practitioner and chair of the Australian Medical Association Council of General Practice, to get the low-down on the winter nasties.
What's the difference between a cold and the flu?
They're different viruses. A cold can be caused by a number of different viruses that don't usually cause the same morbidity and mortality as the flu. A cold virus usually attacks the nose, throat and upper airways. You can usually struggle through it and over-the-counter remedies will make you feel better.
The flu is the influenza virus, which tends to affect the whole body and can attack the lungs as well. The onset of influenza is usually fairly rapid, with lots of aches, pains, shivers, shakes and fever. It's the type of illness that puts you to bed.
How long do colds and flus typically last?
The flu has been studied quite rigorously. You usually incubate it for three to five days, during which you show no symptoms. Two days before you actually get the symptoms, you're probably already contagious. Then you'll be feverish for two or three days, and take two or three days to recover after that.
The duration of colds and flus really depends on your general health. Older people, young babies, smokers or those with other illnesses tend to be hit harder and stay sick longer.
What's the best way to prevent colds and flus?
The very old and very young should get the influenza vaccine every year. That also applies to those who have chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes. If you have a large amount of contact with the public or you get public transport to work, it's also a good idea.
The best prevention for an ordinary cold is a healthy diet and being reasonably fit. Also, make sure to have good hygiene and cough etiquette – use tissues, wash your hands and cough into your elbow.
At what age can children start getting the flu shot?
They can start getting it from the age of one or two. This year, CSL's brand, Fluvax, can't be used in children under five years of age because there was a much stronger febrile and local reaction to it in the young last winter. It's also only recommended in children between the ages of five and 10 if no other vaccine is available.
Is it true that cold weather causes colds and flus?
Cold and wet weather conditions might be conducive to the virus getting a hold, but we also have to think about common-sense things. In the winter, we tend to stay inside with the windows and doors shut. We're in close contact with other people, so that's another reason it spreads.
How effective are natural remedies like echinacea, zinc and vitamin C in treating colds and flus?
There's not a lot of good evidence to suggest that vitamin supplements, either taken regularly or at the time of the infection, can make a difference. Some studies show that vitamin C shortens the duration of colds, while other studies couldn't show that. The same goes for zinc and other remedies. If it works for you, do it. But if it doesn't seem to make a difference, don't waste your money.
How can you tell if your symptoms are allergies rather than a cold?
Take a look at your history. If you tend to be an allergic person who sneezes to moulds or animal dander or when different plants are flowering, those are clues that you might be suffering from allergies. Also, allergies respond really quickly to antihistamines, but if it's a cold you'll only get partial relief. You shouldn't get a fever or body symptoms like aches and pains with allergies.