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Keeping colds at bay

Autumn has been kind to us so far but we can't avoid the inevitable. As the nights close in, so do the chills and sniffles. But don't get out the handkerchiefs just yet. Colds may be catching but there's a lot you can do to help keep them at bay.

Firstly, let's eliminate some old wives' tales -- you don't get colds from being cold, although that certainly won't help. Colds are caused by viruses that lodge themselves in the lining of your nose, your throat and your eyes. They irritate you, causing coughing and sneezing, and drain your body of energy as it tries to fight back. Understanding how these viruses operate will help you to stay fit this winter.

Prepare to fight

It's really all about maintaining your defences. Eat well, sleep well and make sure you're healthy enough to endure everything an Irish winter can throw at you. Getting drenched waiting for the Luas won't give you a cold or flu, but it may weaken an already damaged immune system and make it easier to catch a chill from someone else.

Colds reveal themselves in a variety of ways. Sneezing, sniffles, nasal congestion and a runny nose are the giveaways, as are a sore or froggy throat, coughing, headaches and fatigue.

A cold may sometimes be a man-flu but man-flu is never quite the flu! Proper flu, or influenza, is caused by a separate family of viruses that cause a far more aggressive reaction in your body. A cold may just be sniffles and a dry throat but flu will take down your whole body.

A cold should last between four days and a week but they can linger for a bit longer. Flu will knock you out for longer -- and a full recovery may take well over a week.

The nasty list of flu symptoms includes severe weakness, body aches, sweating, sleepiness and loss of appetite. You'll also be open to headache and backache. If you develop flu, you're not going anywhere. If you find yourself undecided as to what you have, the giveaway is pain in the arms and legs. With flu, your limbs will ache.

Cover up

Cold symptoms usually occur two or three days after infection. You can infect other people from about a day before symptoms occur until up to six days later. Remember, a sneeze is all it can take to spread the virus to a whole room. The almost invisible spray can linger in minute droplet form for hours. So if you have a cold but have to go out into the world, cover your nose when you sneeze.

But just because someone sneezes in your direction, it doesn't mean you'll develop symptoms. The risk of falling ill is between one in three and one in four. If you do catch a cold, you will at least develop immunity to that strain.

If you fall ill with cold or flu, bear in mind that antibiotics won't cure you so don't ask your GP to prescribe them. You might be doing yourself more harm by taking them when they're not suitable. Because of our mistaken belief that antibiotics are a cure-all, the rate of antibiotic resistance in Ireland has become so high that some antibiotics are now virtually useless: "Antibiotics have been misused and are often prescribed unnecessarily for infections such as colds and flu where they have no effect," says HSE National Director of Population Health Dr Pat Doorley.

Whether you have a cold or flu, the treatment is the same. Rest! Your symptoms are signs your body is fighting to get well again. Give it all the help it needs.

Cold comfort - tips to keep you healthy this year

Remember to exercise. Regular, moderate physical activity will keep you fit and improve your mood in the dank days ahead. Even a brisk walk on a cold day will help boost your immune system.

Wash your hands as often as possible. Shaking hands might well be a more common form of transmission than coughing and sneezing.

Avoid touching your eyes and nose. We do this so often during the day without realising but it's a guaranteed way to spread the virus from your hands to where it can thrive and make you ill. The tear ducts link the eyes to the nose so once the virus is brought in, it travels with your tears.

Remember that the cold virus can survive for up to three hours after an infected person has sneezed. Don't get paranoid but be aware that door handles, light switches, handrails and kitchen items can all transmit the bug. Wear gloves when you travel on public transport to be extra safe.

You won't catch a cold just from being cold but you should still wrap up well. And don't forget to keep your nose safe. Wrap a scarf around it when you're out in cold weather. Believe it or not, virus cells breed faster when your nose is cold.

Immunity

One of the advantages of getting on in years is fewer colds. Your body builds immunity from any viruses it gets, so over the years you become less susceptible to run-of-the-mill colds and flu.

As with any threat to the body's defences, your best bet for top protection is to ensure you are as stress-free as possible. Stress makes you less resistant to infection and less able to fight illness when it hits.

If you put your trust in echinacea, you may be disappointed. There is no medical evidence that taking it will make you less prone to infection. Concentrate on eating healthily, staying fit and avoiding contact with people or objects that might make you ill.

Flu can be prevented by influenza vaccination. If you're over 65 or have chronic illness, diabetes or a suppressed immune system, the HSE will give you a free vaccine.


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