Does it seem like everyone around you has the sniffles? All you can hear is coughing and sneezing, or maybe you’re feeling like that yourself? That’s because September through to March is known as flu season; whether it’s the common cold or a more serious flu virus, it’s the time of year to catch it. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know to get through it.
What’s the difference between a common cold and a proper flu virus?
‘Essentially, a cold and the flu are the same thing in that they’re both caused by a virus,’ says Dr Iyaad Hassan, Nurse Practitioner at Abu Dhabi’s Cleveland Clinic. ‘They both cause similar symptoms - upper respiratory symptoms including cough, runny nose, headache fever and chills - but the main difference is that a cold can take a good few days to fully manifest, whereas a true influenza virus will affect you very quickly and much more severely than a cold,’ he explains.
He uses the ‘four Fs’ assessment when considering whether an illness is a cold or a genuine flu virus. ‘First, you’ll have a really high fever; it’s not unusual to spike 39 degrees or higher,’ he says. ‘Second, flu will have a very fast onset; a flu virus will make itself known within a maximum of 48 hours. Third, you’ll feel really fatigued. Not just a little tired fatigued; properly unable to get out of bed fatigued. And finally, you’ll feel incredibly fragile. Not just a little on the sensitive side, but that if someone touches you, you’ll literally break.’
The extent of the effect the illness has on your body is also a good indicator of whether you’ve got a cold or a flu virus, says Dr Iyaad. ‘Generally, patients can still carry on their everyday activities with a cold - although you should rest if you can - but patients with a true flu virus very possibly may not be able to,’ he explains.
Dr Maan Jamal, pulmonologist and medical director at Emirates Hospital in Dubai, explains one last crucial difference. ‘The common cold only affects the upper respiratory system, whereas the influenza virus is systemic; it affects your whole body systems and causes a whole body reaction,’ he says. ‘Patients can often be rendered bedridden with a true influenza virus, as opposed to being mildly debilitated with a common cold.’
How are both illnesses spread?
Dr Iyaad says both the common cold and the flu virus are spread by contact with infection, and via the air. ‘Both viruses can live for a period of time outside the body, so can be spread by contact, and not necessarily close contact; a person with the virus, whether cold or flu, touches something and leaves the virus on the surface, and then someone else touches that same surface and picks up the virus,’ he explains. ‘Or, as it’s airborne, you can breathe it in by breathing in air recently breathed out by a person with the virus.’
Is Dubai worse than elsewhere for colds and flu?
While cold and flu season exists in many other places around the world, Dr Maan says Dubai is a particular hotspot for this type of virus, for a few reasons. ‘Firstly, we tend to have extreme temperature variations here with the heat outside and the cool of the air conditioning inside,’ he says. ‘Going from hot to cold and back again is what activates the flu virus.’ Also, with Dubai being such an international hub, this causes problems within itself. ‘Flu season coincides with a very busy travel season, meaning hundreds of thousands of people come into Dubai from September to March,’ Dr Maan explains. ‘They are coming from many different countries, where there are many different flu viruses, and they travel by air meaning they are likely exposed to these different viruses in the confined space of the aircraft with recycled air.
How are they each treated?
Although a bona fide flu virus is a much more serious illness than a common garden cold, initial treatment protocols are very similar, says Dr Iyaad. ‘For both colds and flu, all doctors will be aiming to do is manage your symptoms to improve your everyday quality of life, with medications such as mild analgesics, cough syrup; basic stuff to make it easier for you,’ he explains. And for a simple cold, this can even be done without a visit to the doctor. ‘Try to self-manage your symptoms at home; use paracetamol and ibuprofen to manage pain and inflammation, and cough syrup if you need,’ Dr Iyaad says. Rest is also important; ‘If it’s a cold, give yourself a break and stay home for some rest and recuperation, and if it’s flu, stay home and keep yourself in quarantine!’
Treating a flu virus is very similar, says Dr Trilok Chand, specialist respiratory medicine Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi, but there could be extra measures needed. ‘Treatment for flu should be good rest, adequate fluids and rehydration if necessary,’ he says. ‘Some patients may also need antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, which will shorten the recovery time of the illness.’ And, if complications of the flu virus include pneumonia or other bacterial infections, concurrent antibiotic treatment will also be necessary.
Can such illnesses be prevented?
Dr Maan says while no medication apart from the flu vaccine will prevent you getting a flu virus, there are steps you can take to both avoid contracting a virus and to make sure you’re in the best position to fight it off if you do get it. ‘All you can do is make sure you are maintaining a healthy lifestyle, eating a healthy diet and exercising,’ he says. ‘Then, avoid obviously sick people. If someone is coughing and sneezing, keep away or - if you do have to be near them - ask them to cover their mouth and nose. Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitiser, especially if you have been around birds or animals or have been touching them.’ And, crucially for Dubai, try to avoid exposure to too many extreme temperature changes.
Dr Iyaad agrees, and says it’s a good idea to avoid places that tend to be prime breeding grounds for viruses and other germs, such as play areas, malls and other crowded areas. ‘If you’re already sick or you have an otherwise compromised immune system, just don’t go,’ he says. ‘Simply avoid contact - close or otherwise - with people who either obviously have viruses such as cold or flu, or who may have been exposed to them.’
So should we all get the vaccination?
Given that flu can be at best debilitating and at worst potentially dangerous, should we all be rushing to have ourselves vaccinated? Dr Iyaad says yes, a vaccination would be a good idea for many people. ‘If you get the vaccine, it doesn’t mean you won’t get flu,’ he explains. ‘You could have been exposed to the virus just before you got the vaccination, which could mean you may not have been fully protected before the virus took hold. Also, there are so many variations of the flu virus you can catch, you can’t vaccinate against all of them.’
Is it really worth it, then?
‘Flu vaccinations are seasonal because we use the information gathered from the previous year’s flu viruses to develop the best possible vaccine for the next season,’ Dr Iyaad explains. ‘Flu viruses do mutate slightly, and there are so many out there; I compare it to scanning products in a supermarket, in that each year we scan the barcodes of the viruses we see so we can add more information to the barcode of the vaccine.’
And what if you’ve missed the start of flu season?
Not to worry, says Dr Iyaad. ‘Flu season is September to March so ideally you should aim to get the vaccination as early in the season as possible, but it’s better late than never; whenever it is, if it’s in flu season, it’ll give you a better chance of not contracting the flu virus in what remains of flu season,’ he says.
Can a true flu virus be dangerous?
Some influenza virus strains can be fatal as they can progress very fast, says Dr Trilok. ‘Influenza viruses can cause complications not only in otherwise immunocompromised patients, or in children and the elderly, but also in normal healthy adults,’ he explains. ‘Complications can include serious respiratory illnesses such as lung congestion, pneumonia and low oxygen saturations, and patients may need ventilation support. And, if ventilation or intubation is needed, this can put the patient at risk of other complications as well such as further infections.’
Those considered a high-risk category of patient, such as children and the elderly, can also be at risk of other complications. ‘In children, if the influenza virus causes vomiting and diarrhoea this can quickly cause dehydration which is dangerous,’ Dr Trilok says.