Flu: How to beat the bugs

Swine flu is back with a vengeance. How can we stay virus-free this winter? Jeremy Laurance explains

It has been an unusual year for flu. But the virus always catches us by surprise. Last year the first pandemic of the 21st century, caused by a "novel" H1N1 virus dubbed swine flu (because it originated in Mexican pigs), was less nasty than feared. The 65,000 deaths it was estimated might result in May, under a "reasonable worst case scenario", were reduced to 1,000 by September. In the end there were 484 confirmed deaths from swine flu.

This year it has returned – and behaved differently. Instead of peaking in the summer – very unusual for flu – and reappearing in the autumn to hang around at low levels for three months, it did not take off until mid-December and was accelerating fast at New Year. Experts warned last week of a surge in cases as children returned to school but when the latest figures came on Thursday they showed a small decline, from 124 per 100,000 population to 99 per 100,000. Cases always fall at Christmas because there are only three working days to report them, but it is unlikely there will be an epidemic this winter. By the time you read this, cases may have peaked or be about to peak. However, even if the worst is over, flu will still be about for another month or two so take precautions to protect yourself and your family.



Is swine flu dangerous?

For most people, no. Many people won't even know they have had it. In others it can be an unpleasant illness – cough, fever, aches and pains. The best treatment is a hot drink, a couple of paracetamol and bed rest. But in a few it can be nasty and it needs treating with proper respect.



How is swine flu different from seasonal flu?

In the past, seasonal flu has targeted the elderly, while swine flu targets younger adults and children. Nine out of 10 of those hospitalised with swine flu this winter have been under 65. Pregnancy increases the risk: it lowers the immune response and the lungs become compressed as the baby grows, increasing the risk from respiratory infections. Other groups at risk include the obese and those with chronic respiratory or neurological conditions.



What flu is around this year?

There are three strains – H1N1 swine flu, H3N2 seasonal flu and flu B. Swine flu is dominant and has become the main virus causing seasonal flu, accounting for most of the deaths and hospitalisations. As it largely spares the elderly they have been less affected. Swine flu is expected to remain a principal seasonal strain for many winters to come.

How bad is it?

There are two contrasting pictures. If you look at the number of cases in the community, based on consultations with GPs, they are broadly what we would expect in any winter

If, however, you look at the numbers in intensive care, they are high, several times the number last year. The explanation may be that flu is no worse but all the severe cases have come in a few weeks instead of being spread over a few months. Flu behaves differently every year.



Is it worth being vaccinated?

Definitely, if you are pregnant or you are in an at-risk group. The vaccine protects against all current strains. But it is late in the season. It takes seven days from the date of the jab to provide partial immunity and two to three weeks to develop full immunity. If you are going to have the jab, have it now.



What about other viruses?

There are the usual collection that cause winter viral illnesses every year – colds, coughs, bronchitis, vomiting and diarrhoea. Densely populated cities provide ideal breeding grounds. The average adult gets two to five colds a year. Schoolchildren suffer worst, with seven to 10 colds a year. Young children, with undeveloped immune systems, are the most vulnerable and form the main reservoir of infection. Most colds are transmitted at home or school and adults in regular contact with children are most at risk of infection. Hospitals are under pressure from these and the weather has added to the problems by increasing the number of falls and fractures.



What is the best protection against catching winter viruses?

Personal hygiene. Wash your hands often and try not to touch your nose and eyes when out and about – they are the key route of access for viruses. Your fingers are easily contaminated with viruses by touching door handles or shaking hands. These are transmitted to the mucous membranes of your nose and eyes (tears drain into the nasal cavity, passing viruses to the nose). Social kissing is OK – the cold virus is lodged in the back of the throat and is unlikely to be transmitted via a kiss. Cold viruses spread by touch or by large particles expelled at close range by coughs and sneezes.

Why are viruses worse in winter?

It is partly that we huddle together for warmth in crowded offices and buses and trains, encouraging viruses to spread. The nose dries in low temperatures or dry air-conditioning and respiratory viruses get trapped and reproduce. Wearing a scarf round your nose and face protects them from plunges in temperature.



Do vitamin C or echinacea help?

There is no good evidence either can prevent a cold or hasten recovery from one. The Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling popularised the idea of taking daily doses of vitamin C to ward off colds. Its sales soared. However, only a very small proportion of people in the West are likely to have a deficiency of vitamin C and it is unlikely a daily dose will provide a benefit. Echinacea is the most popular preventive treatment for colds and is supposed to help halt infection by boosting the immune system. It is claimed it can abort a common cold infection and prevent the development of symptoms, but there is no evidence for this.



How do you tell the difference between a cold and flu?

With difficulty. Severe, genuine flu is characterised by an irresistible and often sudden desire to lie down. It is accompanied by fever, muscle aches and pains and a general feeling of malaise. It's nasty. Fever, aches and malaise can also occur with a heavy cold, though this is unusual. Both flu and colds may also be mild.



What is the best remedy?

Only the immune system can cure a cold or flu. In most cases, it will take four to seven days to get over a cold and will not require treatment. The same goes for flu. Tamiflu helps shorten its length and may curtail its spread, but it is not a "cure". Aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen relieve headache, sinus pain, sore throat and aches. Nasal drops to clear a blocked nose can be helpful before sleep. Any hot drink eases a cough and sore throat – but standard cough medicines are no better than a placebo. Gargle with half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water instead. Spicy foods and hot soups are beneficial. A strong immune system is the best defence against infection – eating healthily, exercising and getting enough sleep will boost it.



When should you call a doctor?

If you have a high prolonged fever (above 102F, or 103F in a child), trouble breathing or symptoms that last for more than 10 days or get worse, not better. In a child, bluish skin, earache, vomiting or a changed mental state are alarm signs. In an adult, pain in the chest, fainting, confusion or persistent vomiting.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
people
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Arts and Entertainment
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
tv'Friends' cafe will be complete with Gunther and orange couch
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

    £450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

    Project Manager - Pensions

    £32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone