Truth about colds, flu

It’s that time of year where it’s not just the air that’s cold – you could come down with one too.

Winter is fast approaching and with it comes the colds and influenza.

While the flu is a contagious virus which affects the respiratory passages, causing fever and body-aches; the more common cold shows up as a running or blocked nose, sore throat, cough, body-aches, headache and a mild fever.

GET A FLU JAB: A lack of exposure to sunlight during winter leads to lower levels of Vitamin D and the hormone melatonin, which both need sunlight to generate, leaving people’s immune systems compromised and unable to fight viruses such as the flu Picture: ISTOCK.COM

Employee health and wellness experts Occupational Care South Africa earlier this year estimated that absenteeism from work costs the South African economy around R12- to R16-billion annually.

Given these alarming numbers, now would be a good time to get vaccinated to try and avoid having to take time off work because of flu.

In a statement issued by a member of the South African Society of Travel Medicine and Federation of Infectious Diseases, Dr Yolande Louw debunks some common myths surrounding both the flu virus and the vaccine.

According to Louw, many people avoid getting vaccinated for fear that the vaccine itself causes illness.

While explaining that the vaccine can cause a mild immune response which could include mild fever, headache and body-aches for around two days – she vehemently stressed that the jab does not break down the body’s immunity, it cannot make one more susceptible to other infections or cause someone to get the virus.

“This is the oldest complaint in the book and also the main reason why patients decline flu vaccines. The vaccine can’t lead to a patient getting the flu because it’s a dead vaccine with no live viruses. It’s so safe we also give it to pregnant women and babies older than six months,” Louw said.

“Throughout the ages certain myths have caused a ruckus… kiss a frog and get a prince, goldfish only have a three-second memory and young healthy people don’t need to worry about the flu.

“This time of the year is filled with great myths and mystery, or rather misery, caused by flu. Quite a number of people believe in home remedies, a post they see on Facebook or something they read on a blog rather than solid, evidence-based medicine. The first step in keeping you and your loved ones flu-free is to learn the truths about this common and often misunderstood disease.”

According to Louw, common flu myths include:

  •  Flu is just a bad cold;
  • Antibiotics can cure flu;
  • Taking supplements can provide immunity;
  • It’s not necessary to get a flu shot every year; and
  •  You can only pass on the flu when you have all of the symptoms.

“The words ‘Doctor, I have the flu’ are often heard in the doctor’s consultation room but when asked when the fever started, the patient often doesn’t have an idea,” Louw said.

“Influenza is an acute and possibly deadly viral disease that almost always presents with a fever. It may also be accompanied with an airway infection or even diarrhoea. The clue here is acute onset. A cold usually develops over the course of a few days and progressively gets worse.

“Antibiotics receive a lot of undue credit. Unfortunately many people believe that if you feel sick, an antibiotic will kill the culprits. The fact is that antibiotics only kill bacteria and not viruses. As flu is caused by the influenza virus, it is therefore a major disappointing medical fact that antibiotics will not cure your flu or cold. We know that flu is sometimes complicated by secondary bacterial infections, but taking an antibiotic when you start with acute fever and body-aches will not prevent a possible secondary infection.”

While a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water and regular exercise can help boost the body’s immunity, Louw said taking Vitamin C can do very little to prevent the flu.

“You only need to take a supplement if you feel that you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals through your diet. Although Vitamin C is the most commonly used supplement, studies have shown that the only people who really benefit from Vitamin C supplements in preventing and even curing a cold or flu a few days sooner are endurance athletes.

“So unless you are training for the Comrades or Ironman, don’t waste your money. And no, going to the gym five times per week doesn’t make you an endurance athlete. The best way to prevent influenza is still to get a yearly flu jab,” Louw said.

Association for Dietetics in South Africa spokeswoman Lila Bruk said people should ensure they regularly eat peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits and guavas as these are the foods naturally high in Vitamin C.

To prevent the flu, Bruk said food like garlic which has antiviral properties, broccoli which is high in anti-oxidant beta-carotene which helps the body fight disease and cashew nuts which are high in zinc, a mineral known to fight off colds.

“Mushrooms are good source of B vitamins, which help your body to cope better with stress. This is important as excessive stress has been shown to weaken your immune system,” she said.

“Fresh tuna is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which play a vital role in strengthening the immune system. Yogurt is filled with probiotics, which are ‘friendly’ bacteria, which help fight infections caused by harmful bacteria and thus have an immune-boosting effect. Ginger has expectorant and decongestant properties and therefore helps to break down mucus and treat sinusitis and bronchitis. Add fresh ginger to stir-fries or steep in water to make ginger tea.”

According to Louw, many believe they do not need to get the shot every year, which is just another misinformed myth.

“Flu vaccination leads to an immune response, which is unfortunately a waning immunity. In other words, as time goes by, you lose the ability to react to viruses well enough to prevent infection.

“Another reason for getting a fresh vaccine every year is because the strains or the types of the virus in the vaccine differ from year to year. Scientists do extensive research to determine which strains are expected to have the biggest impact in the coming flu season. A lot of southern hemisphere’s data are changed and corrected following the flu season in the northern hemisphere and vice versa.

“In South Africa, we only have three different strains in our vaccines, but some of the northern hemisphere vaccines contain four different strains,” she said.

Another widely believed misconception is that the flu is caused by cold temperatures.

But according to research conducted by the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, cold temperatures are only a contributing factor.

The research states that the flu may strike more in winter because on cold days people spend more time indoors with the windows closed, making them more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu, leaving them more susceptible.

A lack of exposure to sunlight during winter leads to lower levels of Vitamin D and the hormone melatonin, which both need sunlight to generate, leaving people’s immune systems compromised and unable to fight viruses such as the flu.

The research adds: “The influenza virus may survive better in colder, drier climates and therefore be able to infect more people.”

One myth which may yet be proven true, however, involves man flu.

According to Louw, a 2013 Stanford University study found that men do not have the same response to the flu vaccine as women do, making them more prone to contracting the flu.

“This is a highly controversial subject. It’s long been suggested that males do get affected by flu symptoms more than the fairer sex. Interestingly, this might not be a myth after all. Due to a reaction with testosterone, they might also get worse symptoms if they do get influenza.”


  1. I live in Cape Town and am traveling to the uk in two weeks time.
    I have been very ill with pneumonia and now asthma and my doctor sugggested I got a northern hemisphere flu jab before I leave.
    Where can I get it in Cape Town?
    Thanks so much.

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