By Rongana Nath

Winter and Flu: The Connection

Winter and Flu: The Connection

Rongana Nath

Winter is setting in and you can already feel the sniffles and chill in the air. You have a cold and a stuffy nose and you’re hoping that it will pass. However, this could also be Flu – the commonly misunderstood disease. Often common cold and flu are assumed to be the same disease because they share similar symptoms such as a cough and a stuffy nose. But flu, also known as influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus, that also brings with it symptoms like a sudden onset of fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, body ache, cold sweat and exhaustion. There are four types of seasonal influenza viruses called Influenza A, B, C and D. Influenza A and B have subtypes of the virus as well. It generally spreads by droplets when a person who has flu sneezes, coughs and talks. Sometimes the virus can enter the body if a person touches their mouth, nose and eyes after touching anything, for example, an object which has the flu virus on the surface.

Does the Winter Bring Flu?

In many parts of the world, influenza is said to be more prevalent during winters. Since cases of flu increase when the temperature goes down, winter weather is named as the culprit. But, there are actually various factors associated with winter that triggers the influenza virus to spread more.

  • Firstly, the influenza virus is known to survive better and longer in the cold, dry weather rather than in warm, humid weather.
  • Lack of sunlight during winter can cause Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D helps in keeping the immune system strong which in turn fends off the virus.
  • The habit of staying indoors in the cold weather can make it easier to spread. A person who already has flu can pass it on to other people in the house.

Unlike cold, flu can cause severe illness and sometimes even can turn life-threatening. The National Centre for Disease Control reports that till the end of October 2018, India reported 10853 cases of seasonal influenza of which 817 patients died. The World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that influenza may occur throughout the year in tropical, warm and humid regions, like India. But it is more widespread during winters in temperate climates like in the US, where it is neither very hot nor very cold.

The virus is so contagious that an infected person can pass the flu even before the symptoms appear and also after a week after falling sick. Influenza can affect anyone but some people are more at risk of catching it faster. Children under 5 years, elderly, pregnant women, people with immunosuppressive conditions like HIV/AIDS and chronic medical conditions related to heart and liver are more susceptible.

Dealing With Flu

Since both cold and flu may look alike, it is important to visit a doctor. After a physical examination, the doctor may prescribe some antiviral medication. Generally, the symptoms of flu decrease with ample rest and fluid intake. In some people, the antiviral medicines can trigger side effects like vomiting and nausea. If a person has flu or is recovering, they should limit outside contact since the virus can spread to others.

If the symptoms of flu are mild, one can take over-the-counter medications, enough rest for the immune system to fight the infection and drink hot soups, fresh fruit juices and water to prevent dehydration.

According to doctors, yearly vaccination is the best prevention from the disease. With a doctor’s consultation, everyone over 6 months of age can get a flu shot to decrease their chances. Children under 6 months of age should not take this shot. The flu shots cause symptoms like a headache, muscle aches, fever, and an upset stomach. In India, there is no national policy for influenza immunization but soon the country will roll out a quadrivalent vaccine, based on recommendations from the World Health Organization.

The quadrivalent vaccine will contain four influenza virus strains will provide greater protection. Vaccination can not only decrease the occurrence of influenza but also bring down mortality rates.