Winter arrives and, with it, flu and colds

A warm winter is predicted for Australia as it heads into the coldest month, but health analysts are still warning against the immediate and secondary risks of colds and influenza.

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University of Sydney professor Robert Booy says, no matter the weather, people must stay aware of infections.

“Whether the prediction is that we’ll have a warm or a cold or a wet or a dry winter, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have influenza during this winter. We’re also going to have a lot of other respiratory viruses.”

The Resident Medical Officer at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Lorcan Ruane, says the public has little awareness of the risks of the common cold.

He says the risk of cardiovascular issues such as heart attacks increases significantly in the week and even month after an infection.

“In the week after an infection, a person’s risk of a heart attack is increased by up to 17 times. The risk was still significantly elevated even after typically mild common-cold symptoms. Importantly as well, the risk, although highest in one week after the infection, still persists for up to one month after the symptoms.”

Dr Ruane says the risk of heart attack is already significantly higher in people over age 50 and they will experience up to three common colds or infections each year.

He says they will spend more of the winter months with an increased risk of heart attack.

“So, for the average person, they will potentially spend many weeks of the year in a state of significantly elevated risk. And, because these infections are more common in the winter months, it can be expected that the increased risk is concentrated in these months. And this is exactly what has been observed in previous studies. There does appear to exist a peak of heart attacks in the winter months.”

The doctors reiterate the importance of vaccinating at the beginning of winter to protect against viruses throughout July, August and early September.

Professor Booy says the influenza vaccination protects against at least 60 per cent of the viruses.

“The key virus, really, to know about, is influenza, because there’s a routine vaccination available for that virus. Flu’s been with us for the last few months, at relatively low levels, but we are expecting it to rise as it does every winter during July and August and perhaps into September. What does the vaccine do? Well, it’s not too late to have it, that’s the first thing to say. Your GP* should still have some supply, and, if you get vaccinated now, you should get a good level of protection. By a good level, (that’s) somewhere around 60, maybe even 70, per cent protection. It’s not perfect, but it’s a vaccine that’s certainly worth having.”

However, the vaccine does not protect against all strains.

He recommends individuals take extra caution around others with influenza.

“Wash your hands regularly, not just before and after going to the bathroom but more regularly than that. Another is to avoid shaking hands with people who have symptoms. Avoid hugging or even kissing. Better to smile at people and to see them from a few metres away, rather than get close to someone who’s got the symptoms — the runny nose, the cough, the sore throat. And if you’re that person who has those symptoms, keep yourself away from other people, too, because, by doing that, you can prevent the spread of respiratory infections.”

The doctors say they are also concerned about the lack of insulation in homes.

Professor Adrian Barnett, of the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, says people should worry less about beautiful homes and more about insulation.

He cites double-glazing as an example.

“We’ve got a wooden house, on stilts, lots of windows, and all these features are designed to make the house cooler in summer, which they do very nicely. Unfortunately, that also has the effect of making the house a lot colder in winter, because, if that air gets in … And so, really, when we’re looking at temperature, it’s the indoor temperature that really matters, and our housing design is all geared towards summer.”

Deaths increase because Australian homes are not built for winter, and Professor Barnett says it is ridiculous that people die over 10-degree weather.

Also, those looking to depend on vitamins this winter may want to think again.

Robert Booy warns there is little evidence of whether they are a good preventative or a cure.

“The evidence that vitamins, including vitamin C, will make a difference to your risk or to help you to improve more quickly is very scanty. Some people have looked into the use of zinc, a mineral, and there’s some more evidence there that it may be helpful as a preventative for infection. People who take regular zinc may be at lower risk of respiratory infection. But that’s about it.”

Lorcan Ruane says a healthy diet and good overall hygiene are simply the best prevention against colds or influenza this winter.