Oct 17, 2013

Colds & Flu - 'Tis the Season: Catch it, Bin it, Kill it

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What is there to like about the Winter?' It's the question many of us are asking - except for the ski-obsessed, the sun-shy, and those who get to knock-off work when dusk falls. Yes, the cold and flu season has started, and the clocks haven't even gone back yet... Yet, on reflection, how lucky we are that we live in an era where soaring temperatures, stuffy noses and aching joints can be controlled by medication.

ANTIPYRETICS: WELL-ESTABLISHED RELIEF

Antipyretics are drugs or herbs that reduce fever, and multiple versions are now available to treat the raised body temperatures that accompany infection. The word 'antipyretic' is derived from the Greek words for 'against' (anti) and 'fever' (pyreticus). Interestingly, one of the first herbs used to counter fever and pain involved the bark of the willow tree, and grazing animals have been observed chewing willow, presumably for its restorative properties. The active compound is salicylic acid. (from the Greek for 'willow' - salix). Aspirin is in fact acetylsalicylic acid, and was first isolated in 1897 by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for the Germany company, Bayer (two years after Bayer marketed heroin, incidentally). Bayer still manufactures Aspirin over 100 years later. As well as being an antipyretic, Aspirin is also an anti-inflammatory drug, as is Ibuprofen, making them both members of the NSAID group of drugs, although aspirin works in a different way to the latter.

HOW THEY WORK

Antipyretics work on the brain's hypothalamus (which is involved in several metabolic processes, and secretes certain neurohormones) causing the hypothalamus 'press an over-ride switch', stopping the signalling molecule, interleukin, from inducing a raised temperature. Although these drugs aren't associated with treating the underlying cause, they make many episodes of colds and flu more bearable for the sufferer - not to mention those charged with caring for them. (We won't mention 'man flu'...)

FLU JABS: DO THEY WORK?

Britain's ageing population, the 2009 swine flu epidemic, and the fact that very young children and people over 65 have weakener immune systems, have combined to create a strong drive by the NHS to get patients immunised this winter. The best time to have the jab is from the beginning of October, and children are now being offered the less invasive nasal spray form of the vaccine by the NHS.

This graph, courtesy of influenzanet, an online flu surveillance system,clearly shows jabs to be effective in preventing outbreaks. Flu incidence peaks between mid December and mid January, ruining many a Christmas holiday. We're convinced the extra handshakes and greet-kissing in the season of goodwill play a large part in spreading infection, but we were surprised to learn that there's no evidence that using public transport increases the chance of getting flu. (So much for using 'infection risk' as an excuse to catch that post-party cab, then.)

Source: Influenzanet

NHS television advertisement from 2009: Catch it, Bin it, Kill it

Top Tips for Prevention

  • Wash hands regularly
  • Cover mouth when sneezing & coughing
  • Keep surfaces clean
  • Don't share towels
  • Try not to touch nose or mouth
  • Stay at home
  • Catch coughs and sneezes in the crook of your elbow, not your hand"