Melbourne does autumn so well- the trees turn every shade of red gold and orange, and fall wonderfully dry and kickable onto the city streets. The morning sun glares in the window with a low wintry brilliance that tells you you’ll need to wear your coat. The coffee drinkers no longer sip their morning beverages under parasols on the street, but gravitate indoors with their Herald Sun and Age newspapers and laptops. It’s all rather lovely.
But one of the less lovely aspects of this time of year, is the emergence of all manner of viral illnesses, the “common cold”, influenza and viral gastroenteritis to name but a few. GP surgeries heave with runny noses, rumbling tummies, and people queuing for flu vaccines.
So, why does the common cold plague us in winter.? Can being cold give you a cold? We hear mothers calling children indoors on chilly days to put on a hat and coat to prevent them from “catching a cold”. Some recent research suggests there may be at least a grain of truth in this advice- it showed that cold nasal cells mounted a weaker immune response when confronted with a cold virus as compared to warmer cells. But there are probably other more important factors: in cooler weather people tend to gather indoors in smaller spaces, and viruses can be shared very quickly through contact, sneezes and coughs.
There are 99 recognised strains of the common cold virus or Rhinovirus, to use its proper name. There are also numerous viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis. Influenza can manifest in a variety of strains in any given year.
So what can we do to protect ourselves against these numerous and invisible pests? Well, we can vaccinate against some of the, such as rotavirus, which causes a nasty form of viral gastroenteritis- children are immunized at the age of 2,4 and 6 months. The influenza (flu) vaccine must be re-engineered on an annual basis, as the virus continuously mutates or changes- that’s why a jab is needed every year to maximize chances of being protected. Anyone can get a flu vaccine, but it is more important for some groups who have a higher chance of developing serious complications if they catch influenza- such as the over-65 age group, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic disease such as diabetes and asthma. The government covers the cost of the vaccine if you fall into one of these categories. But unfortunately none of these vaccines gives 100% coverage. And sadly, as yet, nobody has come up with a way to immunise against the 99 types of common cold virus!
With most of the above viral illnesses, the key approach to recovery is adequate fluid intake and rest. If vomiting or diarrhoea is present, over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions such as Hydrolyte are a very good idea-for adults and kids alike. Non-prescription medications such as Imodium can certainly slow down diarrhoea, but are probably best only used now and then rather than continuously, and are not recommended for children. The good old reliables- Paracetamol (Panadol) and Ibuprofen (Nurofen) will help with aches, pains and fevers.
Most people can confidently self-diagnose a common cold or viral gastroenteritis, but if the symptoms seem more severe than expected or if you’re in any doubt, it’s always best to ask a doctor for advice. If you want to avoid sitting in a crowded waiting room, a service such as Dr Sicknote ( www.drsicknote.com.au) can provide medical certificates and carer certificates for work, and will allow you or your loved one to recuperate more efficiently at home, without spreading infection to others. And with any luck, you’ll be back out there, kicking those lovely golden autumn leaves in no time at all!