I was at the theatre recently, and when the lights went down before the sound came up, it was abundantly clear: sniffle season is upon us. The chorus of coughs and snorts had me reaching for my hand sanitizer and considering the nearest exit!
With cold and flu season here, I spoke to Dr. Mary Vearncombe, former Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Sunnybrook, about how to best minimize the spread of germs and stay healthy.
First though, the difference between a cold and the flu: a cold is a viral infection that brings along a stuffy nose, sore throat, cough and general crummy feeling. In healthy people, it doesn’t usually lead to serious health complications.
The flu is an acute respiratory infection that brings along a fever, cough, chills, aches and pains, and can lead to serious complications like pneumonia. For the elderly, pregnant women, chronically ill or young children, influenza can be deadly. It kills around 3,500 people per year in Canada.
Both colds and flus can feel pretty yucky if you catch one. So here are Dr. Vearncombe’s tips for avoiding both this year:
Clean your hands.
Wash with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Both are effective at removing (washing) or killing (hand sanitizer) bacteria and viruses, including respiratory viruses.
Hand sanitizer should contain alcohol at a minimum concentration of 60 per cent to be effective. Many people find alcohol-based hand sanitizer to be a convenient way to clean hands, especially in public places where hand washing sinks with soap and water are not always available. Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your purse, pocket or backpack.
Get the flu shot.
We are all susceptible to influenza virus, even those of us who consider ourselves healthy.
“If we get influenza, it may be relatively mild for us and we think we have ‘just a bit of a cold’,” Dr. Vearncombe said. “But, we are still infectious to others who may be more susceptible to serious influenza virus infections.”
And we all have these vulnerable people in our lives: elderly parents or grandparents; pregnant relatives or friends; infants and young children; friends and relatives with chronic diseases such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or cancer. By getting the flu vaccine as healthy people, we protect ourselves and therefore help to protect our vulnerable friends and loved ones. (And remember, you can’t get the flu from the flu shot. You may get arm tenderness or mild aches afterwards.)
Get your kids the flu shot or nasal vaccine.
Kids should also get the flu shot or nasal vaccine. A recent US study questioned the effectiveness of the nasal version, but data from studies in Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom suggest it’s effective for use in children. View Health Canada information on the nasal flu vaccine here.
Stay home if you are sick.
Many of us have a strong work ethic and want to drag ourselves in to work even when we are feeling ill. Stay home if you have the flu or a bad cold with a fever.
“Respect your colleagues at work: nobody wants your viruses,” Dr. Vearncombe said. “If you go to work, you will compound the problem by making others in your office ill.”
And this doesn’t just mean staying home from work. Protect your vulnerable family, friends and neighbours. If you promised to go visit your elderly grandmother, call and reschedule; your trivial infection may result in life-threatening pneumonia for her. If you’ve got an acute respiratory infection, now is not the time to take the bus to the movie theatre.
Practice healthy habits.
“Keep your immune system healthy: eat properly, exercise, get enough sleep,” Dr. Vearncombe says. “If possible, keep your distance from people with obvious symptoms of respiratory infection, e.g., coughing, sneezing.”
If you are coughing/sneezing, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue (or “sneeze in the sleeve”), discard the tissue in the garbage immediately after use and clean your hands.
“Most of this is what your mom always told you to do,” Dr. Vearncombe says. “And, as always, mom was right!”
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the flu vaccine.
A version of this post appears in the Town Crier newspaper in Toronto, Ontario.
This post has been updated to reflect 2017/2018 flu information