As the weather cools down, winter illnesses tend to ramp up. Rebekah Fraser spoke to an infection control nursing expert about how the spread of colds and flu can be prevented.
Simple hygiene practices could help prevent the spread of illnesses like colds and flu this winter.
Massey University nursing lecturer Monina Hernandez said respiratory infections such as colds and flu were commonly spread by two methods.
The first was through infected droplets in the air.
“When a person with a cold or flu sneezes, coughs or talks they can expel the virus into the air where anyone can inhale it from one to two metres away.”
The viruses also spread through direct contact from a sick or infected person’s hands and nasal secretions.
Infections spread faster during winter because of crowding and a drop in air humidity caused by heating, Hernandez said.
“The drop in humidity makes the nose drier due to the slowing down of mucus secretion and its clearance. This means that the virus sticks around the respiratory passages longer than it is supposed to before it is destroyed by the body’s defense mechanism.”
She said infection control measures were important to protect ourselves and loved ones.
“But also the people around us, especially the most vulnerable.”
This included children aged under one-year-old, those 65-years and older, pregnant women and the immune compromised.
Hernandez said there was a “certain truth to the virus ‘doing the rounds’” of the entire family.
“The reason for this, apart from close proximity, is the fact that respiratory viruses may survive outside the human body from a few minutes to a few days.”
She said it was important for people to take action against these viruses by getting vaccinated, by taking preventive steps and by undergoing treatment, if needed.
She echoed Ministry of Health advice in terms of preventing the spread of winter illnesses.
“First, get a flu jab every year. It has to be every year because every flu season is different and people react differently to flu infections.”
She said the vaccine helped reduce the number of flu illnesses, and therefore prevented complications such as pneumonia or worsening of other chronic health conditions.
She said staying at home when sick, covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoiding contact with people who were sick was also important.
“This has to be done to cut off the transmission of the virus through infected droplets expelled in the air and through direct contact with secretions that have the virus.”
Hand-washing, as well as cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, was also important for infection control.
“Remember that the flu virus remains viable for a few hours outside the human body, thus it is best to get rid of it by washing one’s hands or to kill it by cleaning and disinfecting surfaces where it would potentially thrive.”
Hernandez said success in preventing flu should also focus on strengthening one’s defenses.
“Get plenty of rest and sleep, drink plenty of fluids, eat nutritious food, be physically active and manage stress levels.”
For those who did get sick, recognising the signs of flu was important — these included fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, vomiting or diarrhea.
“Stay away from work or school if you have these signs. The worst symptoms may last for five days although cough could extend up to two to three weeks.”
Doctors may sometimes recommend antiviral medications, she said.
“Take them as prescribed. It is best to be cautious than be sorry.”