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Tips to Prevent Colds and Flus


Tips for preventing colds and flusWinter brings with it the dreaded season for colds and flus. Feeling lousy, losing days from work and counting the costs of health care give us good reasons to prepare ourselves in order to prevent becoming infected this winter. For most people, colds and flus are self-limiting and resolve themselves within a few days. But for some people, particularly those aged over 65, there is a high risk of developing flu-related complications that could be fatal. Thus, it is important to be proactive by following some simple common sense precautions to reduce the risk of acquiring an infection.

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What are colds and flus?

The common cold and flu are widespread infections of the upper respiratory tract caused by viruses. There are over 200 viruses that can cause colds. The most common one is the rhinovirus, followed by the corona virus and the respiratory syncytial virus. The large number of viruses capable of causing colds explains why we repeatedly catch colds.

Influenza or the flu is caused by the influenza virus, of which there are three major types – A, B and C. This virus is able to mutate and change its structure, giving rise to different strains every year. The body does not have any immunity to the new strain, so you can be repeatedly infected, even if you had a flu vaccine the year before.

Colds and flus are highly contagious. They can be passed from person to person by inhaling infected air droplets created from sneezing or coughing, or by hand contact or contact with surfaces that may have been touched by an infected individual (e.g. door knobs, pens and phones).

Colds and flus can be caught by inhaling infected air droplets created from sneezing or coughing

Colds and flus are usually not serious unless you develop complications. Some complications that may develop in high risk individuals include ear infections, pneumococcal pneumonia, sinusitis and bronchitis. Pneumonia is the most common and serious complication. It can be fatal for older people, or people with chronic illnesses. A generally healthy person is less likely to catch a cold or flu. If they do catch one, they will be better able to fight it.

Who is most susceptible to colds and flus?

Those most vulnerable to colds and flus are the very young, the very old, and people who smoke. Children are more vulnerable to the common cold than adults and can catch 7-10 colds per year. Adults get about 2-5 colds per year. This is due to children’s underdeveloped immune systems and lack of hygiene habits. It is therefore important that children be taught how to minimise their chances of becoming infected.

Although winter is associated with more colds, the cold weather does not actually cause it. Rather, the increased number of colds is caused by many other factors associated with the onset of winter. During the colder months, people spend more time indoors in close contact with others, thereby increasing the chance of acquiring an infection. Seasonal changes in humidity also affect the prevalence of colds. The viruses responsible for causing colds survive better in low humidity conditions, such as those created by central heating. In addition, cold weather dries out the inside lining of the nose, an important natural defence barrier to infection, and makes it prone to cracking, thus increasing your vulnerability to infection.

There are many other factors that affect whether you will catch a cold or flu. If you are fatigued, stressed or have allergies, your health is less than optimal and you are more susceptible to infection.

Symptoms of colds and flus


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Both colds and flus cause inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth and throat. They have very similar symptoms, such as:

Colds are characterised by a gradual onset, beginning with a feeling of tiredness, a runny nose and sneezing. Muscle aches, sore throat, headaches and a mild fever may also be experienced. The severity of symptoms peaks 2-3 days after infection and lasts 7-10 days. However, some symptoms may persist for several weeks.

The primary route for infection with cold viruses is by touching the eyes and nose with contaminated hands. Rhinoviruses can survive on hands and surfaces for several hours. The other route of infection is by inhaling aerosols containing infected virus particles released after an infected individual has sneezed or coughed.


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A flu is a more severe infection. It develops suddenly and is associated with:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Chills and sweats
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Body aches
  • General feeling of weakness  

Congestion, sore throat and eye pain may also be experienced. Diarrhoea and vomiting are common in children. The flu lasts much longer than a cold. In some cases, it may lead to serious complications such as pneumonia.

Tips to prevent catching a cold or flu

As there are no cures, the key to avoid catching a cold or flu is prevention. There are several measures you can take to minimise your exposure to the viruses responsible for colds and flus, including behavioural, environmental and pharmacological strategies.

Limit exposure

1. Wash your hands

Maintaining strict hygiene is vitally important during the cold and flu season. Colds and flus can be spread via aerosol droplets created by coughing and sneezing, and by touching surfaces that infected individuals may have been in contact with. The virus most frequently enters your body when you touch your nose, mouth or eyes with infected hands.

It is best to make a habit of washing hands for at least 10-15 seconds in warm soapy water, especially after coughing or sneezing and before eating. Teach children to wash their hands as well. If you do not have access to water, you can use an alcohol-based disinfectant hand gel with at least 60% alcohol content.

2. Avoid crowds and sick people

Sometimes it is difficult to avoid sick people, as people who are infectious may not have any symptoms in the early stages of their illness. Try to avoid people who you know have a cold or flu, and stay away from crowded areas during flu season to reduce your chance of infection. This is particularly important for infants in the first few months of life.

3. Disinfect surfaces

Keep household surfaces clean (e.g. door knobs, switches and telephones) as they can harbour viruses for several hours. Wipe and disinfect these surfaces regularly. Also use separate towels or paper towels in kitchens and bathrooms for infected individuals. Throw tissues out immediately after use as they can spread the virus to surfaces.

Practice healthy habits

If you are healthy, your immune system is stronger and better able to fight infection. You can enhance your body’s natural resistance mechanisms by eating well, remaining physically active despite the cold weather, and getting enough sleep.

1. Eat and sleep well

Eating a balanced diet provides your body with the nutrients and vitamins it needs to help the immune system fight infection. Eat foods containing phytochemicals such as dark green, red and yellow fruit and vegetables. Eating a tub of yoghurt daily can reduce your chances of catching a cold by 25%.

Getting plenty of sleep also helps boost the functioning of your immune system.

2. Reduce stress

People who are under stress tend to have weakened immune systems, so are more likely to get sick and experience more severe symptoms. In addition, people who are more sociable are less likely to get sick. If you are run down or stressed, try to incorporate some relaxation techniques into your life. If you remain relaxed, your immune system produces more of the chemicals needed to fight infection (interleukins).

3. Stop smoking

Smokers are more prone to respiratory illness than nonsmokers, and experience more severe and frequent colds. This is because cigarette smoke dries out nasal passages and paralyzes the hairs that line the mucous membranes, which normally act to sweep viruses out of the nasal passages. Nonsmokers should take care to avoid secondhand smoke.

4. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, helps keeps you fit and gives your immune system a boost, enabling it to function more effectively. Exercise can increase the number of virus-killing cells in your body. It may not prevent all infections, but it can speed up recovery and reduce the intensity of symptoms.

However, heavy exercise is not recommended. Don’t overdo it if you are suffering from a cold or flu, as this can exacerbate your illness. Moderate exercise (e.g. walking) can help alleviate some of the cold symptoms.

5. Regulate humidity

Other ways to avoid catching a cold are to ensure your house is not overheated, and to increase the humidity by using cool mist humidifiers or vaporisers. The low humidity created by heating dries out the mucous membranes of the nasal passages, making you more vulnerable to infection. Low humidity also provides an environment that encourages viruses to survive and thrive. Make sure you go out and get fresh air to counteract the drying effects of indoor heating.

Get a flu vaccination

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The large number of viruses capable of causing colds means that there are no vaccines for them. But there are flu vaccines available (e.g. Fluvax).  The flu vaccine provides one of the best way to protect against the flu and is particularly important for people who are at a high risk of developing flu-related complications (e.g. infants, pregnant women, people over 65, or people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease).

The flu vaccine is only effective for one year because of the way the influenza virus is able to mutate. Thus, a new vaccine is created every flu season and you must be immunised every year in order to stay protected. The flu vaccine is 70-90% effective, depending on the intensity and length of the flu season. 

In Australia, the flu season begins around May and continues until September. The flu vaccine should be administered in March/April to give it enough time to work before the onset of winter. Antibody levels in the blood peak at around three weeks following vaccination.

The influenza vaccine is made from the three influenza viruses that have been inactivated. This vaccine is given in the arm. It enables the body to develop antibodies to the influenza virus in case of infection. It can be used in anyone older than 6 months, as well as anyone with chronic medical conditions.

An intra-nasal spray version of the vaccine (FluMist) is available in the US, but is not yet licensed for use in Australia. The nasal spray is suitable for people aged 2-49 years that are in good health, but is not suitable for pregnant women. This spray is made with a live, weakened virus that does not cause the flu, but still causes an immune response in the nose, upper airways and through the body.

The protective effect of the vaccine is more efficient if you have previously had the flu or a flu vaccine. Children under nine years who have not received a vaccination before should get two doses of the vaccine one month apart.

If you have had the flu vaccine and still get the flu, you will have a reduced risk of developing any flu-related complications (e.g. pneumonia, stroke and heart attack). This is particularly important for older people who are most vulnerable.

Who should get a flu shot?

Most people are able to obtain a flu shot. There are certain groups of people who are highly susceptible to complications and are therefore strongly advised to get vaccinated. In Australia, the flu vaccine is free of charge for people aged over 65, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSIs) aged over 50 years or aged 15-49 years with a chronic illness. When vaccine supplies are limited, then vaccines may be restricted to high priority groups. 

In Australia, immunisation is recommended for:

  • All adults aged over 65 years
  • Infants and children aged from 6 months to 4 years
  • Children on long term aspirin therapy
  • Pregnant women (especially those who are in their second or third trimester between June and October)
  • Anyone with a chronic medical condition (e.g. asthma, diabetes or heart, kidney or lung disease)
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system or who is undergoing immunosuppressive treatments
  • Residents of nursing homes or long term care facilities
  • Child care workers, health care workers, or anyone living with or looking after someone at high risk of developing flu-related complications
  • Anyone visiting parts of the world where influenza is circulating

Who should not be vaccinated:

  • People who have had an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past
  • People with allergies to chicken eggs (the vaccine is cultivated in chicken eggs)
  • Anyone who has developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of receiving the vaccine in the past
  • Children under 6 months of age
  • People suffering from an illness with a fever

Tips for managing symptoms if you catch a cold or flu

If you do get sick, it is important that you try not to infect others at home and at work, especially if you live or work with people in the high risk categories. Some tips to prevent infecting others include:

  • Stay away from work or school until you get better.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze. Discard the tissue after use.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 10 seconds after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, and before touching other people or objects that others may touch.
  • If you see your doctor, call ahead so they can put you in a separate waiting area. Ask for a mask if you are coughing and have to wait near others.

Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated

Adequate rest and fluid intake is important for ensuring a speedy recovery from the flu. Maintaining hydration ensures that the body is functioning and can defend itself more effectively. Fluids also help loosen mucous and alleviate congestion, so try to drink lots of fluids (e.g. water, juices and soups). Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol, as they are dehydrating. Alcohol also affects liver function, reducing the body’s ability to eliminate viruses.

Eating chicken soup, previously thought to be merely an old wives’ tale, has been shown to have a mild anti-inflammatory effect that also helps clear mucous and reduce congestion.

Many people believe that milk and dairy products increase congestion and should be avoided; however, this is not the case. Dairy products should not been withdrawn from the diet.

To soothe a sore throat, try gargling salty water.

Choose medicines that are appropriate for your symptoms

It is better to choose medicine for a specific symptom rather than using something that treats everything, even symptoms you don’t have. This way, you can avoid side effects associated with drugs you do not need, and can lower the cost of medicines.

Painkillers such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help with fever, headaches, sore throat and body aches. Aspirin should not be given to teenagers or children, as it is associated with Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome causes drowsiness and vomiting, and can lead to brain damage and death.

Stuffy and runny noses are the most common symptoms of a cold. Nasal decongestants can be used by both adults and children. For infants and children, use a bulb syringe to gently suction the nasal passages, then apply saline nasal drops to clear the nose and reduce congestion. Using a humidifier in the home can also help relieve a stuffy nose. Make sure it is kept clean to avoid the build up of mould.

Antihistamines are effective for sneezes and runny noses. For coughs, take something containing a cough suppressant.

Natural remedies

Vitamin C, zinc and echinacea are used by many people to prevent and treat colds and flus, although their health benefits are not yet definitively proven.

Vitamin C:

  • Vitamin C appears to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms, but does not prevent colds.


  • Some studies suggest that echinacea may be effective in the early treatment of cold and flu.


  • Zinc is known to have antiviral properties.
  • Zinc lozenges appear to be effective for adults, but have the opposite effect on children.
  • Zinc nasal sprays can help reduce the severity of symptoms, but has no effect on the duration of a cold.

Say no to antibiotics

Antibiotics are not a solution for either colds or flus. Many people still mistakenly believe that antibiotics can help treat these infections. However, antibiotics only work for bacterial infections, not viruses.

The inappropriate use of antibiotics contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, consequently making antibiotics ineffective in treating other infections you may acquire.

The only time antibiotics should be given is if it is suspected that you have a bacterial infection which has been caused by a complication associated with the flu (e.g. an ear infection, bronchitis or pneumonia).

Antiviral medications for influenza

There are two antiviral drugs which can help treat and prevent infuenza A and B infection. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can help reduce the duration of illness and severity of symptoms if taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. These antiviral are known as neuraminidase inhibitors. They work by preventing the virus from spreading inside the body.

Oseltamivir and zanamivir are effective for both human and bird (avian) flu, and can be obtained by prescription from your doctor. However, they are often in short supply. They can cause side effects such as lightheadedness, vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite and breathing problems.

When to see a doctor

Most colds and flus can be left to run their course and can be managed by following the above tips. You don’t need to see a doctor unless your symptoms are getting worse, or you are not getting any better after a week. Some warning signs to look out for include:

  • Persistent fever for three or more days
  • Bad cough or sore throat that has lasted for more than ten days
  • Shortness of breath or pain from a sinus infection
  • Earache
  • Chest pain
  • Changes in mucous consistency (e.g. thick or yellow-green mucous)

Another sign is if you feel better for a little while, then feel worse again with a high fever or chest pain. 

In children, parents should look out for:

  • Drowsiness
  • Refusal to eat
  • Wheeziness
  • Crying
  • Holding the ears or stomach


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calendar icon Created: 27/7/2008 calendar icon Modified: 27/5/2009