Picture: AP Photo/Roberto Pfeil, File

Durban - Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a dreaded force to be reckoned with during the winter season. Even though you may brush it off as a case of the sniffles, it is actually more serious than you may think.

CEO and Principal Officer at Profmed, Graham Anderson said the truth is that the flu is actually a relentless and possibly life-threatening disease which kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year.

Is it a cold or the flu? How to tell the difference?

Even though the common cold and the flu are both caused by a virus, they are not the same. They are, however, spread in similar ways - either via direct contact with infected or contaminated surfaces or by inhaling the airborne virus after affected individuals sneeze or cough.

Most people are not aware of the distinct difference between a cold and the flu. 

Flu symptoms are usually more intense and sudden, and if left untreated, more serious complications can occur, such as pneumonia, inflammation of the heart and other bacterial infections. A cold is a milder respiratory illness that tends to take much longer to kick in and is usually associated with a sore throat and runny nose. Also, with the flu, you can get a severe headache, pain in the joints and a fever whereas with a cold, this may not happen.

Why you should get a flu shot? 

The flu shot can help keep you from catching the flu. You can vaccinate against influenza but not the common cold, so a person can still experience a cold following a flu shot. This is because the flu is caused by different virus types in contrast to a cold.

A seasonal flu vaccine is made available every year to protect individuals against the most common strains of this extremely contagious respiratory illness; locally developed according to the influenza A or B viruses that occurred in Europe and the UK during their winter season.

“Getting a seasonal flu vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against the flu viruses going around each year,” says Anderson.

Get the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available from either your doctor or local pharmacy, but also don’t opt to get one if you are feeling under the weather. Although the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, if you are a healthy person in general, the flu vaccine can lessen the severity and duration of your symptoms if you do get influenza.

When to self-medicate and when to see a doctor

South Africans may argue that they have no savings left from their medical aid to see a doctor and get expensive medicine by the time flu season comes around. If this is the case, you will need to self-medicate with over-the-counter medicines supplied by your pharmacist.

You cannot cure a virus, but you can treat the symptoms. For example, if you have a nasal cold, you can use over-the-counter medicine to relieve the symptoms.

Be honest with your pharmacist when getting medication - tell them what other medicine you are taking or have been taking, as this may have an influence on what they suggest, and what may work for you.

In general, medicine containing codeine should be avoided as it can be addictive, and causes constipation. Rather opt for medicine containing paracetamol or aspirin - these will also address the symptoms without such adverse effects.

If your symptoms persist or they get worse, you need to make an appointment to see a doctor. If left untreated, you may get a secondary infection as your immune system is already compromised.

The high risk of getting sick from the workplace

Because influenza spreads via direct contact, contaminated surfaces or inhalation, there’s a higher chance to get infected at work. When you have the flu, don’t be a hero and go to work. Apart from not feeling well, you will probably also spread the virus, which may infect your colleagues - especially in open-plan offices.

What can you do to try and stay healthy this winter?

South Africans can also take some basic preventative steps to protect themselves from coming down with influenza. Follow these tips to safeguard yourself against the dreaded cold and flu:

  •  Avoid close contact with people who are already sick, and vice versa. Keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. If you cannot avoid contact, invest in some surgical masks to wear in and around the house.
  • If possible, stay home and avoid public places when you are ill. This will help contain the infection.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing or cough and sneeze in the nook of your elbow to prevent the spread of germs.
  • Washing your hands often will help protect you from bacteria. If soap and water are not available, use a waterless hand sanitizer.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at work or at home, especially when someone has the sniffles.
  • Get plenty of sleep, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

 “By practicing the above-mentioned tips you can reduce and possibly completely skip the cold and flu season, emerging on the other end with very little battle wounds. Avoiding germs and ensuring your immune system is strong and functioning are vital during season changes,” concludes Anderson.