Most of us get a feeling of impending doom as winter approaches. The reason: cold and flu season, with its associated stuffy noses, fever, aches and pains. The following information might just help you to prevent and control the winter blues!

Why do colds and flu strike mostly in winter?

Contrary to what many people believe, the increased incidence of colds during autumn and winter is actually not due to the cold weather as such. Why then do more people get colds and flu during the winter months? Probably because of more time spent indoors, increasing the opportunity for viruses to spread among people. The warm, dry air inside helps viruses to thrive and also dries the lining of the nasal passages, making us more susceptible to infection.

In winter we also tend to eat fewer salads and fruit, and more soups and stews, with a resulting decline in our intake of antioxidants and other immune-boosting phytonutrients (phyto = plant). Less time spent outdoors soaking up the sun’s rays, from which we get Vitamin D and melatonin, may also be a contributing factor. A lack of these nutrients simply means that our bodies don’t have the right tools to fight viruses, making it easier for us to get sick.

The difference between colds and flu

Both colds and flu are highly transmittable respiratory infections, caused by many (more than 200) viruses. They spread easily from person to person through droplet distribution when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The viruses infect the nose, throat, sinuses, upper airways and lungs, and the symptoms are mostly side effects of the body’s efforts to get rid of the viruses. A cold may sometimes lead to secondary bacterial infections of the middle ear or sinuses, while flu (the common name for influenza) can lead to potentially life-threatening complications like bronchitis or pneumonia.

Colds usually begin slowly, two to three days after infection with the virus. The first symptoms are mostly a scratchy, sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose. Temperature is usually normal or only slightly elevated. A mild cough can develop several days later. Cold symptoms usually last from two days to a week and tend to be worse in infants and young children, who sometimes have temperatures of up to 39°C.

Flu can mimic a cold in many ways and is mostly a mild disease in healthy children, young adults, and middle-aged people. Flu can, however, be life threatening in older adults and in people of any age who have chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart, lung, or kidney disease, or a compromised immune system.

Signs of flu include sudden-onset headache, dry cough and chills. The symptoms quickly become more severe than those of a cold. The flu sufferer often experiences extreme exhaustion, with muscle aches in the back and legs. Fever of up to 40°C is common. The fever typically begins to subside on the second or third day, and then respiratory symptoms like nasal congestion and sore throat appear. Fatigue and weakness may continue for days or even weeks.

Cold and flu-like symptoms can sometimes mimic more serious illnesses like streptococcal infection of the throat, measles, and chickenpox. Allergies can also resemble colds with runny noses, sneezing, and generally feeling miserable.

Younger children are more prone to colds and flu, because of their lack of acquired immune resistance to infection and close contacts with other kids in schools and day care. Women’s closer contact with children may also explain the greater prevalence of colds in women than in men.

What about the flu vaccine?  

The flu vaccine is made from highly purified, egg-grown influenza viruses that have been made non-infectious. The latest research, however, indicates that vaccines may actually suppress your immune system. As a doctor of natural medicine, I would never recommend the flu vaccine for everybody. There are very effective, natural remedies and precautionary measures to support the immune and respiratory systems, while also helping to control and improve symptoms. It is also important to remember that the flu vaccine does not prevent the common cold.

Vaccinations should only be recommended for the following high-risk groups:

  • People aged 75 and older who have a predisposition towards flu, bronchitis and pneumonia during winter;
  • Residents of nursing homes and other facilities that provide care for chronically ill persons;
  • Those with certain underlying medical conditions that required hospitalisation or regular doctors’ visits during the preceding year. These conditions include: asthma, anaemia, chronic diseases such as uncontrolled diabetes, heart, lung or kidney disease, impaired or compromised immune system function due to HIV infection, treatment with drugs such as long-term steroids, or cancer treatment with radiation or chemotherapy;
  • Health-care workers, nursing home personnel, and home-care providers, to reduce the risk of transmitting flu to high-risk persons (and to protect themselves from infection). Police, ambulance personnel, fire fighters, and other community service providers may also sometimes find vaccination useful.

It takes the immune system about six to eight weeks to respond to vaccination. The best time therefore to get the flu vaccine, is from mid-March to end-May, before the flu season starts.

Use antibiotics with caution

Throughout the world people have begun to realise that antibiotics are no longer the miracle cure for all infections. Due to the excessive use and abuse of antibiotics over the past few decades, bacteria have become increasingly resistant. Researchers have been forced to call a halt to what now appears to be a move in the wrong direction and reconsider matters.

This development should encourage us to take responsibility for our own health and to educate ourselves about the harmful side effects of all medication, not only antibiotics. As we become more aware that there are alternatives and other effective options available to us, we can insist on using them as our first choice of treatment for infections and other ailments and diseases. Antibiotics can be kept for the really serious bacterial infections; they will then be more effective and save lives.

The problem of bacterial resistance is particularly serious in patients with a reduced immunity (for example, after transplantation of kidneys and other organs, in Aids patients and diabetics, during chemotherapy or after major surgery). These patients often die as a result of overwhelming infection caused by bacteria that are resistant to even the most toxic antibiotics. Anyone who uses antibiotics unnecessarily is adding to this problem and, as responsible members of society, we all have a duty not to abuse antibiotics.

When we abuse antibiotics, our immune system will develop an increasingly reduced resistance to bacterial and viral infections. Unless children are exposed to various foreign organisms, they will never develop an optimal, general resistance to the different organisms and they will continually experience infections. These are prematurely and unnecessarily treated with antibiotics and it becomes a vicious circle.

Antibiotics also disturb the delicate balance between the essential bacteria and fungi in our digestive tract. This can lead to candida infections (thrush), a problem for many women as soon as they take antibiotics. When the beneficial flora in the intestines are destroyed, the fungi take over and thrush develops.

The normal population of bacteria in the digestive tract can be maintained by taking supplements or probiotics. These ‘friendly’ bacteria, which occur naturally in the alimentary tract, keep your immune system healthy; they produce vitamins (for example vitamin K) and help with the detoxification of environmental toxins and other substances. These functions are all very important for biochemical balance in the body.

Now for the good news! In my next column we’ll be looking at Nature’s Own Pharmacy – the many natural remedies available to support your immune and respiratory systems through winter and spring.

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