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Winter Health and Wellness: cold and flu

General Health

Many of us complain about sore throats and coughs during the winter time but do we know the difference between a cold and the flu?


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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During the winter months as the nights draw in and the weather gets colder, our health and mood can take a hit. From November to March, we are more susceptible to colds and flu; we can suffer from dry skin and hair, we experience more aches and pains, and our moods can darken just like the days. In an attempt to brighten those dark winter days, throughout December Medichecks weekly winter health series will be focusing on a particular winter ailment and will be offering advice to try and make those winter blues a little easier. 

In recent weeks, the NHS has warned that this winter the UK could be due the worst flu season in its history. It is estimated that adults catch a cold anywhere between 2-3 times a year with numbers of those suffering rising during the winter. Because of this, for the final instalment of our weekly series, we thought it would be appropriate to focus on cold and flu. 

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses caused by a viral infection. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, water droplets are released from the nose or mouth containing contagious viral particles. If droplets land on a surface, they contaminate it, easing the transmission of the virus to others. The best way to distinguish between whether you have a cold or the flu is to look at your symptoms. A runny nose, headache, sore throat, coughing and sneezing are all classic symptoms of a cold. Flu symptoms include a dry cough, high temperature, sore throat, chills, muscle ache and severe fatigue.

Why do many people seem to catch a cold/the flu during the colder months?

There are many possible reasons as to why the winter weather leads to many developing a cold or the flu. The influenza viruses that cause the flu can spread through the air. It is thought that in cold weather, the influenza viruses are more stable, as they contain an outer lipid membrane which becomes tough when cold. This increases the likelihood of the virus infecting others as viral particles are more active and resilient. The low humidity experienced during winter also encourages the viruses to float in the air in little droplets. When the air is more humid, those droplets pick up water, increase in size and are quicker to fall to the ground. The viruses capable of causing a cold also thrive in low humidity.

Are there ways to avoid catching a cold/the flu?

To stop viral transmission, it is advised to wash your hands regularly, especially before eating, sanitise surfaces and dispose of tissues immediately rather than leaving them lying around. Getting enough sleep is also important to keep the immune system healthy, as is staying hydrated and eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to provide the body with essential vitamins and minerals. There is no vaccine to prevent you catching a cold as there are many different viruses able to cause a cold, but there is a flu vaccine. Because different influenza strains are constantly emerging, there is a new flu vaccine every year. The vaccine does not provide 100% immunity but will greatly reduce your chances of getting flu. 

A raised white blood cell count and a low platelet count can be indicative of a viral infection present in the body. Our full blood count gives you the ability to see if your blood cell count is raised. If you are experiencing any flu symptoms, our influenza screen is an excellent blood test to see if there are any influenza A or influenza B antibodies present.


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