Influenza - The bane of our winters

The cold and the flu are two common infections in the winter, especially in the period between November and April, when they are most active. But can you tell the difference between the cold and the flu? People often confuse these two conditions are often mistaken one for the other, and yet they are quite different, particularly in terms of their severity.

The cold and the flu: two common infections in the winter, especially in the period between November and April, when they are most active. But can you tell the difference between the cold and the flu? People often confuse these two conditions are often mistaken one for the other, and yet they are quite different, particularly in terms of their severity.

Causes The common cold and the flu are both respiratory tract infections caused by viruses. While a relatively small number of viruses can lead to the flu, over a hundred different viruses can cause a cold – which is the reason no vaccine can be developed to fight the bothersome cold.

Is it a cold or the flu? A cold predominantly produces inflammation of the nose and throat. It may be associated with several symptoms: sneezing, throat irritation, a runny nose and congestion. Fever is very rarely seen with a cold. Symptoms usually diminish after 2 to 3 days.

The flu, which is caused by one of the many influenza viruses, is a more aggressive infection than the cold, especially when it comes to the severity of symptoms. It usually starts with headaches, a cough and chills. Soon after the first symptoms appear, patients experience fever, loss of appetite, muscles aches, fatigue, a runny nose, sneezing, teary eyes and throat irritation. Extreme fatigue and high fever are observed in the first three to four days. In certain cases, especially among children, symptoms may also include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Most flu symptoms diminish in 5 to 7 days. Some of the symptoms, however (particularly fatigue and cough), may last for up to 2 weeks or more.

The flu – whether it is the seasonal variety or type H1N1 (“swine” flu) – does not usually pose a danger to healthy adults. For the elderly or individuals with a chronic disease, however, the flu may lead to various complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis, heart failure and kidney failure. These complications can have dire consequences and even result in death.

Vaccination is a must! The best way to prevent the flu and its complications is to get vaccinated every year. Vaccination is particularly recommended for certain individuals: groups who should get the flu vaccine include children aged 6 to 23 months, persons aged 60 and over, individuals with chronic diseases and the people with whom they are in close contact. Vaccination is also recommended for healthcare workers and persons who work with children between the ages of 0 and 23 months. Anyone else who wishes to get the vaccine may do so, for a small fee. Consult your physician or CLSC for more information.

For safety reasons, however, some people must avoid getting vaccinated. These include babies under the age of 6 months, and people who have had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or a vaccine.

Pharmaceutical companies are currently working on developing a vaccine for the H1N1 flu. This vaccine will probably be the object of a vaccination campaign separate from the one for the seasonal flu. While the H1N1 flu is a source of concern for many, it should not mean that the seasonal flu vaccine should be overlooked!

Lastly, keep in mind that these vaccines only prevent the flu; someone who has been vaccinated may still catch several colds over the course of the winter.

Making a difference with hand washing A thorough hand washing is also a key element in preventing the spread of diseases, whether it be a cold, the flu, or any other contagious ailment. We should normally wash our hand after blowing our nose or coughing, before cooking or eating, after using the washroom, upon leaving a hospital or medical clinic, and any time our hands are dirty. It is also important to wash our hands even more regularly during a contagious disease epidemic, as occurs with influenza.

The hand washing must ideally be thorough in order to eliminate as many bacteria as possible, thereby considerably reducing the risk of contamination. A good hand washing simply requires water and regular soap (antibacterial soap is not usually necessary). It is recommended to wet your hands first and apply the soap afterwards, followed by a vigorous rubbing of the hands against each other for 15 to 20 seconds. It is important to wash all hand surfaces, including under the nails and in the space between the fingers. Lastly, rinse your hands and dry them with a cloth or paper towel. It is preferable to turn the tap off with that same towel; that way, you can avoid touching the tap directly, which would contaminate your hands once again.

Basic rules of respiratory hygiene Following a few respiratory hygiene rules when we sneeze or cough helps stop the spread of virus-infected droplets into our environment. One recommendation is to cover your mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. For the most effective prevention of contamination, drop used tissues into a garbage bag or closed waste basket. In cases where tissues are not within reach, it is preferable to cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or into the inside of your forearm, rather than into your hands. You should wash your hands any time you sneeze or cough into your hand. These simple measures greatly reduce the probability that we will contaminate the people and objects that surround us.

In addition, if you have a fever or are in the first few days of your cold or flu, it would be very wise to stay home and rest for a few days – if possible – rather than going to your workplace and contaminating your colleagues.

Prevention is still the best option The cold and flu are among the most commonly encountered illnesses during the winter. And yet, following simple rules of hygiene can make all the difference. We can help reduce the risk of transmission, whether it is by washing our hands as often as possible or by getting our flu shot. Prevention is in our best interest!

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