Struggling with an autumn cold? You’re not the only one. With most Covid-19 restrictions lifted, coughs, colds and flu are back – and many of us are experiencing symptoms that feel worse than usual.
Last winter, the pandemic restrictions didn’t just protect us from Covid-19 – they were also effective against common respiratory viruses, including those that cause colds and flu.
Livi GPs Dr Anam Ashraf and Dr Rhianna McClymont share their advice on how to prepare for a potential post-lockdown rise this year.
What exactly is seasonal flu?
Influenza, more commonly known as flu, is a seasonal respiratory illness with lots of different strains. Like Covid-19, it’s spread through the droplets produced when we cough and sneeze, and these can spread easily indoors and in warm environments with poor ventilation.
Flu is known as a seasonal infection because it spreads most commonly from December to March, sometimes leading to outbreaks.
How does flu evolve from one season to another? When you catch a cold or flu, your immune system makes antibodies that recognise and bind to the virus. That means you’re better prepared to fight off the virus if you encounter it again.
‘The influenza virus mutates frequently. When it mutates, the existing antibodies the human body has to fight it are no longer able to bind to the virus and neutralise it,’ explains Dr Rhianna McClymont.
‘This means that each flu season, the immune system has to recognise and produce antibodies for a new strain of influenza.’
How has Covid-19 affected this year’s cold and flu season?
‘Flu is one to watch out for this year,’ says Dr Anam Ashraf. ‘While we’ve all been focused on stopping the spread of Covid-19, our immune systems haven’t been exposed to the usual mix of infections they would normally have to contend with, and it’s likely that fewer people have natural immunity this year.’
Even then, flu can be unpredictable. ‘Herd immunity is when a large portion of a population becomes immune to a disease, and this rarely happens with the flu virus as it’s constantly mutating and changing,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘It’s impossible to predict what this year’s flu season would have looked like independent of last year.’
Why are some people feeling like they’ve caught the ‘worst cold ever’?
There were fewer respiratory viruses circulating last year due to the effectiveness of social restrictions.
More social mixing means more of us will catch colds this year – but why do the symptoms feel more severe than usual? ‘Many people may have simply forgotten how rough the common cold can make you feel,’ says Dr McClymont.
It’s also possible that some of us have been infected more than once. ‘There are lots of different strains of cold, and it’s not uncommon to contract two colds in a very short period or to contract the second just as you’re recovering from the first.’
Could there be a ‘twindemic’ of flu and Covid-19 at the same time?
‘This is quite likely over the winter months when colds and flu spread rapidly,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘It’s important to have your Covid-19 vaccine and, if you’re eligible, your flu vaccine, to protect yourself as much as possible.’
How do I know if I’ve caught a common cold or flu? Dr Ashraf explains that it’s sometimes difficult to know if you have the common cold or the flu virus because the symptoms can be very similar.
The main difference to look out for is how quickly your symptoms develop. Symptoms of flu appear abruptly, around 2 days after your body has come into contact with the infection. They include a fever and muscle aches and can make you feel too unwell to carry on with your usual activities. Some people may need to be off work or school and rest at home.
Cold symptoms, caused by a different virus, come on more gradually and are milder. This means that most people often feel well enough to carry on with their daily activities and don’t need to rest at home. Cold symptoms are mostly related to a runny nose and sore throat.
The most common symptoms of cold versus flu
Sources: Eccles, R. Understanding the symptoms of the common cold and influenza. The Lancet Infectious Disease. 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cold versus flu. 2021.
What’s the best way to treat flu?
The best treatment for flu is rest. This may mean taking time off work or school and taking time out from your hobbies and social activities. Drink plenty of fluids to make sure your body is well-hydrated, and try to stay cosy and warm.
You can use over-the-counter medications like paracetamol and ibuprofen to help with fever and pain.
Most people will feel better in about a week, but some people can develop complications from flu. These can include bacterial infections like pneumonia or a worsening of another existing lung condition, like asthma or COPD. For pregnant women, flu can be especially harmful to the mother and baby.
You should always speak to a GP if you’re concerned about your symptoms or if:
- You’re over 65
- You’re pregnant
- Your symptoms aren’t improving after one week
- You have a long-term health condition, such as lung disease, heart problems, kidney disease or problems with your nervous system
- Your immune system is weaker due to medication, chemotherapy or HIV
If you start to experience chest pain, have difficulty breathing or are coughing up blood, it’s best to go to A&E or ring 999.
What can I do to prevent colds and flu this winter?
1. Get the flu vaccine
One of the best ways to protect yourself from flu is to get the vaccine. ‘Given the low levels of immunity in the community due to pandemic lockdowns, it’s even more important to get the flu vaccine,’ says Dr Ashraf.
‘All eligible people will be contacted by their GP to have the flu vaccine this year. The flu vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting flu, and although it can’t protect you from every type, it does protect you against the most common strains. If you do catch the flu after having the vaccine, your symptoms will be milder and you’re less likely to suffer complications.’
If you’re eligible for the flu vaccine, look out for a message from your GP inviting you to have your jab.
2. Keep up good hygiene
Because of the pandemic, we’ve all become more aware of the importance of hygiene to prevent the spread of infections. ‘Virus droplets can be transmitted through hand-to-hand contact if you have coughed and covered your mouth, or they can be picked up from surfaces that an infected person has touched,’ says Dr McClymont.
These hygiene habits work well for preventing cold and flu:
- Clean surfaces that are regularly touched, like door handles, phones and keyboards
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
- Throw away used tissues in a bin immediately after using them
3. Wear a mask
Masks help cut down on the spread of colds and flu, as well as Covid-19. ‘Colds and flu spread through respiratory droplets, so if an infected person coughs or sneezes without wearing a mask, they’re more likely to spread these droplets further and infect other people,’ says Dr McClymont.
What can parents or guardians do to help prevent colds and flu?
Just like adults, children were protected from infections last year, so this year might feel worse in comparison. ‘It’s quite normal for children to have several cold and respiratory virus infections each year, so this should be expected,’ says Dr McClymont.
You can reduce the spread of viruses at school and at home by encouraging frequent hand washing and throwing away tissues after sneezing. Though it can be tough, it’s best for your children to stay at home when they’re unwell.
Worried about colds and flu? It’s a good idea to book an appointment to see a GP if:
- Your symptoms still aren’t better after 3 weeks
- You suddenly feel worse
- You have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
- You’re worried about your child’s symptoms
- You feel breathless or have chest pain
This article has been medically approved by Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi