The pandemic has dominated our attention over the past year, but understanding more common cold and flu viruses is just as important. Here’s what you need to know.
5 steps to help keep colds and flu at bay
1. Spot the difference
Colds and flu are both caused by viruses, and while many of their symptoms are similar, there are some important differences. With a cold you’re more likely to experience sneezing, have a sore throat and develop a cough, but are less likely to have a headache or fever. If it’s flu, your symptoms will likely include aches, pains and fever, and you can feel weak and extremely fatigued – possibly even for a couple of weeks. Colds are more common than flu, but flu is more severe and highly contagious. Many cold and flu symptoms are also similar to COVID-19 symptoms, so if you experience any of them – even in a mild form – the Australian government’s Health Direct website* recommends having a COVID-19 test immediately.
2. Hygiene comes first
The pandemic has taught us the importance of hygiene for slowing the spread of a virus – and that’s one lesson we should all remember. Wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds, using soap and waterˆ, and use hand sanitiser in-between. Always sneeze and cough into your elbow or a tissue, and don’t share cups, cutlery or towels with others.
3. Keep your distance
For the past 15 years, University of Newcastle researchers have been tracking cold and flu outbreaks across Australia. They found that instances of those illnesses were at an all-time low in April 2020, indicating that the social-distancing measures put in place to combat coronavirus also reduced the chance of catching a cold or flu†.
The official rules around gatherings in public and at home are likely to keep changing in response to COVID-19. But you can follow simple social-distancing guidelines any time, like avoiding crowded spaces and public transport in busy periods. And if you do catch a cold or flu, stay home until you recover to reduce the chance of passing it on.
4. Get the jab
Although it’s possible to get the flu at any time of the year, it’s more common in winter. The government’s Department of Health recommends having the flu vaccination each autumn, to help strengthen your immunity before ‘flu season’ arrives. The vaccination changes each year, to account for changes in the flu virus, so it’s vital to have it annually. The current recommendation is for everyone over the age of six months to have the flu vaccination, but especially the elderly and people with chronic illnesses. And, of course, talk to your GP to find out more.
5. Rest and recuperate
If you catch a cold or flu, first take a COVID-19 test, then stay home and rest, even if your test comes back negative. Try to eat healthily and drink plenty of water. Drinking warm liquid – like soup, tea or even just warm water – can soothe a sore throat.
†Tracking Flu Outbreaks to Improve Public Health, newcastle.edu.au, April 2021