If you could do one simple thing this season to lessen the risk of colds and flu, would you? If the answer is yes, then please go wash your hands.
It's that time of year again. Colds and flu are most prevalent in our area from November to April and according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, it's estimated that 10 to 20 percent of us will become infected with influenza this year. While most of us will recover once sick, the flu can and does take a heavy health toll, resulting in more than 20,000 hospitalizations and between 2,000 and 8,000 deaths in Canada from flu and complications every year.
Seasonal influenza or flu is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory system that spreads easily and rapidly among humans. Symptoms of the flu include sudden headache, sore throat and muscle aches, plus fever and chills. The flu can hit you hard and fast, with symptoms lasting a week and more. It can also lead to secondary infections such as pneumonia. Each year a flu vaccine is developed and made widely available at flu clinics and pharmacies.
Typically milder than the flu, colds are caused by rhinoviruses, resulting in minor infections of the upper respiratory passages. With a cold you may suffer from a runny and stuffy nose, scratchy or sore throat, headache and cough. There are no vaccines for the common cold.
However, you can take steps to protect yourself from both colds and flu and prevent spreading viruses by simple practices like hand washing, courteous sneezing and diligent coughing habits, said Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast.
“Practice good hygiene, always," he said. "Wash your hands often and sneeze or cough into your sleeve or arm, not into your hand."
Martiquet also reminds us that germs and viruses can live on and spread via keyboards, doorknobs and other communal surfaces. That's why it's so important to always wash your hands throughout the day, after going to the washroom, or being out in public. These practices will help prevent the spread of other contagious diseases too.
And of course, Martiquet strongly advises to get the flu shot each year.
“It's a no brainer," Martiquet said. "If we had a vaccine for the common cold I'd be recommending that too."
But what if you are healthy and strong? Should you really consider the flu shot, or is it just for weaker populations such as the elderly or those with threatened immune systems?
Ken Grunenberg, pharmacist/owner of the Medicine Shoppe in Wilson Creek said getting vaccinated protects not only you, but the people around you.
“There are two reasons why a person who is healthy and strong should get a flu shot," said Grunenberg. "If they do become infected, even before they are symptomatic, they could spread the flu to other more vulnerable people.
Plus, an inability to work due to illness may cause a financial hardship," Grunenberg adds.
Are you worried that the shot will hurt? You're not alone. But for most, the discomfort is mild compared with getting the flu.
"Most people (95 per cent) who I have injected do not experience any discomfort," he said.
The skill of the injecting person is a factor influencing the pain level, he adds. Occasionally, there can be redness, swelling or soreness at the injection site after the shot.
Some people fear they may contract the flu from the flu shot, but this is not possible, adds John Kennedy, pharmacist and owner of Pharmasave in Sechelt.
“The virus is deactivated in the flu shot," Kennedy said. "The body treats it as an enemy, reacts to it and builds up immunity, but you absolutely cannot get the flu from the shot."
Getting the flu shot is easy, says Moe Laycock, pharmacist at Marina Pharmacy in Madeira Park.
"It only takes a few minutes and you don't need to do anything to prepare," Laycock adds.
You will be screened to make sure the flu shot is right for you and getting vaccinated is not recommended if you are feeling sick or have a fever, notes Laycock.
If you qualify, the shot is free, otherwise there is a small fee. People at high risk of contracting serious illness from the flu, including seniors and others with chronic health issues qualify in B.C. Ask your pharmacist if you are unsure. You can also visit websites such as fightflu.ca to find a local flu clinic, or call 811.
For those with significant fear of shots, a nasal flu vaccine or mist may also be available. This vaccine is not injected, but sprayed into your nasal passages. According to Health Link BC, it is only indicated for certain members of the population (those aged two to 59 and healthy) as it does contain live (but very weak or attenuated) influenza viruses, within the vaccine.
Finally, if you are feeling unwell and think you may have the flu or a cold, do yourself and everyone else a favour by staying home from work, school or other activities that involve going out in public. If your symptoms worsen, call your doctor. Get some rest and drink lots of liquids. Hopefully you'll feel better sooner and you'll avoid spreading the flu or colds to the community.