Make the most of winter by staving off colds and flu, and recovering faster if you do become ill.
It’s a common concern that with winter, there comes a sharp rise in the incidence of nasty colds and the more severe flu. This is due to the immune system’s inability to beat the virus, as internal body temperatures fall after exposure to cold air. With over 200 common cold viruses and three flu viruses, as well as many strains within each, it’s not easy to distinguish what you have1. While a bad cold can keep you pretty miserable in bed, with a sore throat and a runny nose, a bad cold doesn’t necessary make it the flu. The flu virus can be debilitating, and give you a high fever. Vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions may even need treatment in hospital. A cold is likely just to make you feel miserable, but it can get in the way of work, family life and your social life.
There are steps you can take to avoid contracting flu or a cold, and there are some things you can do to minimise your symptoms and speed up recovery. Follow our guide to help protect yourself and your family.
1. Have a flu vaccination
With no treatment or medication, other than rest and fluids, prevention from vaccination is the most effective method in combating the flu. Lasting for one year, the flu immunisation, normally administered in October or November, should be had every year. The flu vaccine is particularly advisable for people who are more susceptible to contracting flu. This includes people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, people with heart disease or respiratory issues and people with weakened immune systems. If you fall into one of these risk groups, you are also more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia as a result of a flu virus3
. The flu vaccine is given free on the NHS as an annual injection to adults over the age of 18 at risk of flu and children aged six months to two years at risk of flu, however you can choose to have the vaccine privately5
. Many BMI Healthcare hospitals offer a Private GP service through which you can arrange a flu vaccine, so contact us
to find out more.
2. Wash your hands
Cold and flu viruses are spread from person to person through tiny droplets of infected mucus. These droplets are everywhere in public spaces, but you can avoid ingesting them by washing your hands regularly with warm water and plenty of soap. It is also a good idea to avoid touching your face, as the cold and flu viruses enter your body through your eyes, nose and mouth.
3. Take aerobic exercise
Getting your heart pumping can lift your mood and has also been shown to increase your body’s production of white blood cells4. White blood cells are a key part of your immune system and they actively fight off viruses in your body. When you exercise, the number of white blood cells increases and they circulate more quickly through your body. Aerobic exercise also increases the activity level of your antibodies, reduces the production of stress hormones and flushes harmful bacteria from your lungs.
4. Eat a healthy diet
Eating plenty of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables can help make sure you’re taking in all the vitamins and minerals your body needs for a strong immune system. Taking a vitamin supplement can help to fill in the gaps left by your diet, but the natural chemicals found in plants mean the vitamins in vegetables are more easily absorbed by your body. While there is no evidence that Vitamin C can prevent colds, a daily dose can slightly reduce the length and severity of colds in the general population2;. You should also keep well-hydrated by drinking lots of water, particularly when you have a cold. This is to ensure that you do not become dehydrated, and replace fluids lost from sweating and having a runny nose6.
5. Zinc supplements may help
However careful you are in taking steps to prevent colds and flu, sometimes it just can’t be helped. It is likely that you will experience a cold or flu virus at some point over the winter. If you become ill, there is some evidence that taking zinc within 24 hours may speed up recovery and lessen the severity of your symptoms2. However, long-term use of zinc supplements can cause side effects such as nausea, so limit your use to when you have a cold.
6. Take painkillers
Painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help you manage your symptoms and feel better while your body fights off the virus. Paracetamol is used to treat fever, which is a common symptom of flu, while ibuprofen can help to relieve aches. Decongestants can also help to reduce swelling inside your nose and allow you breathe more easily6
7. Home remedies
Home remedies and traditional methods can be extremely comforting in relieving symptoms of a cold or flu. Drinking hot liquids can relieve nasal congestion and soothe the inflamed membranes in your nose and throat. Gargling with salt water and sucking on menthol sweets can moisten and soothe a sore throat and reduce a tickle. Nasal saline drops can help relieve a blocked nose and vapour rubs are particularly successful in relieving babies and young children6.
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