Diet & Nutrition

How to keep winter bugs at bay

Cold and flu bugs are at their worst in the winter months, but there are preventative measures you can take to avoid infection, writes Professor Kerryn Phelps.

Winter is upon us again. Warm fires, cosy home-knits, hot chocolate, skiing holidays. Hold that image! The unfortunate downside is that this time of year also brings the inevitable winter bugs. Colds and flu can make it impossible to really enjoy the winter months. As always, prevention is by far the best strategy.
Protect yourself
Avoid exposing yourself to sick people wherever possible and let your friends and family know not to visit you if anyone is sick, particularly with flu symptoms.
An etiquette known as "social distancing" became popular during the swine flu pandemic last year. It involves keeping your distance from other people, no cheek-kissing or shaking hands in greeting. It might make you look unfriendly but it is far friendlier than sharing a dose of the flu.
If your child is sick, keep them away from preschool or school so that other children will not have to go through it, too. Stay home from work so you don't spread the infection around the office.
Respiratory viruses can last for days on surfaces, so if you touch a surface that harbours the virus, then put your finger in your nose or rub your eyes, you will infect yourself. So keep your fingers out of your nose.
Avoid sharing personal items such as cutlery, cups, plates, toothbrushes and towels, and wash your hands regularly during the day.
Tissues are meant to be used once and thrown away …and forget hankies. Viruses like colds and influenza can survive for hours or even days on a tissue or hankie.
When you know you are about to sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue to reduce the amount of virus you spray around the room.
Although smokers have the same number of colds per year as non-smokers, smokers tend to be sick for twice as long and suffer more complications like sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia. Children exposed to tobacco smoke will also have more chest infections and middle-ear infections.
Flu news came early this year with the pandemic of swine flu sending public health experts and governments around the world into action to limit its spread.
If you have ever had the flu, you will know how miserable it can make you feel with the cough, the fever, and the aches and pains. It is more than just a bad cold.
The flu vaccine consists of both seasonal flu and swine flu (H1N1). People at high risk need to consider it a high priority. The fewer people in the community who get the flu, the less chance there is of people at high risk contracting it, and the less disruption there is to family and work life. Even if you are "healthy", influenza is a serious disease that puts you out of action for a week or more. If you do catch the flu, antiviral medications are available.
Another bug which causes concern, particularly in winter, is pneumococcus, one of the bacteria which causes pneumonia. It is also a common cause of middle-ear infections and meningitis. There are many different types of pneumococcus, and there is a vaccine to protect against 23 of the most common types.
Treating colds and flu
Most winter bugs can be managed at home and if you take it easy for a few days, the average cold will pass in about a week with rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Over-the-counter cold and flu preparations help to reduce fever and relieve discomfort but do little more than that.
Many natural therapies are popular and include vitamin C and zinc and the herbs echinacea, andrographis and goldenseal.
You need to go to a doctor when:
  • A sore throat persists for more than a couple of days, or gets worse. This could be tonsillitis.
  • You have thick green, yellow or blood-streaked discharge from the nose.
  • You have earache.
  • You feel pain in the face. This could be sinusitis.
  • You have a fever which lasts more than a day or which is high (over 39C) and does not respond to simple treatment.
  • You have a temperature that rises after you've been ill for a few days.
  • You have a moist or wheezy cough, or if you are having difficulty breathing.
  • You have a cough that seems to be getting worse or will not go away.
  • You have any symptoms that last for more than a week.

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