It’s winter, in Australia’s southern states at least, and cold and flu season is here.
Which means many of us will notice respiratory viruses spreading among family, friends and colleagues – and will cross our fingers we don’t catch them.
This year’s flu season is tipped to be less severe than 2017’s horror outbreak, in which there were nearly 1100 deaths from influenza in Australia.
However, the federal government is still urging people (anyone over the age of six months) to get vaccinated against the flu. The European Centre for Disease and Prevention and Control says vaccination reduces the risk of getting the flu by 60 per cent.
Australia imported a record 5.1 million doses of the flu vaccine this year, up almost 10 per cent on 2017. There has reportedly been a 25-30 per cent uptake in demand for the vaccine across the country.
Nonetheless, as the peak season approaches and that inevitable winter sniffle starts, many will wonder if they have the flu or a common cold.
What’s the difference?
A cold is gradual and usually begins with a sore throat, developing into a runny nose and congestion a few days later. It is most contagious in the first three days and usually lasts for about a week.
The flu is more severe and comes on abruptly. Symptoms include a sore throat, fever, muscles aches, headache, congestion and a cough.
Influenza can potentially cause pneumonia, and fatalities are possible. Of the flu-related deaths in Australia last year, more than 90 per cent were people aged over 65.
Is it possible to have the flu and a cold at the same time?
University of Canberra Health Research Institute deputy director Dr Reena Ghildyal said they were caused by different viruses. It was definitely possible – although unlucky – to have both at the same time.
“The flu is caused by the influenza virus and a cold is caused by many different viruses like the rhinovirus,” Dr Ghildyal said. “You can have influenza infecting you but at the same time you might also have the rhinovirus in the nose.”
Rhinovirus is what causes the common cold.
Does a flu shot protect you from catching a cold?
No, because its target is elsewhere.
“The influenza vaccine is targeting the current strains of influenza. However the virus changes all the time, [and] it is really important to have the shot every year,” Dr Ghildyal said.
“We can’t predict exactly what will happen. If you have had the shot and feel like you have flu symptoms, visit your doctor.”
Do colder temperatures and getting wet make you more likely to get the flu or a cold?
No. We are more likely to catch either virus during colder months, but that’s more to do with how we behave, Dr Ghildyal said.
“In the winter months, we are in closed areas more,” she said. “This means there is a higher chance of transmitting the virus to other people.”