We associate winter weather with colds and influenza (the 'flu). This first article will describe why colds and 'flu are different. The second will explain how vaccinations work. These are discussions of published facts and do not necessarily represent personal opinions of any members of PSI or CTA.
The difference between the common cold and the 'flu
The common cold (more accurately "colds") is caused by any one of about 200 different micro-organisms called viruses, some of which are around all the time. We usually don't notice them because our natural immune system protects us.
Influenza is also caused by a range of viruses related to each other but not to cold viruses. They are more uncommon and can cause nastier symptoms. The severity of the 'flu depends partly on which actual "bug" has infected you and partly on the state of your immune system at the time.
Many of these viruses (both for cold and 'flu) thrive if the air in your nose and throat is cooler. Although you can only get sick if there are actually viruses around, it is more likely you will catch a cold (or 'flu) when it is cold. (This is just "probability" – of course we can get summer colds too). The old wives' tale about catching cold if you get a chill is only partly true; you also need to be infected by a virus.
When the cells in your body get invaded by any micro-organism, the first natural immune response is to produce a range of chemicals such as histamine (and others) which cause the infected cells to break open and spill out their contents, literally washing out the viruses. This causes some inflammation, a runny nose, an itchy throat and mucous in our airways that we have to cough out. And the viruses take advantage of the watery sneezing and coughing, and our sticky fingers after we have wiped our nose, to move around and infect other people.
The common cold usually does not produce any fever, and you usually start feeling markedly better after 3-4 days if you are otherwise reasonably healthy.
Influenza is very often more serious and usually does produce a fever as well as aches, pains, fatigue and inability to get on with your normal duties; it can last 1 to 2 weeks before you feel well. This is because these more virulent viruses stimulate much more complex immune responses – your body has to work harder to try to eliminate the infection and it can't support normal activities while it does this.
Once you become sick with either cold or 'flu there is no known cure. Anti-viral medications may not help as much as hoped – and antibiotics do no good because these illnesses are NOT caused by bacteria (other types of micro-organism).
To relieve the symptoms, there are antihistamines to dry up your runny nose (we all respond differently, so try another if one doesn't work); inhalations to help you breathe more easily; and advice to stay warm, rest and drink fluids to help your natural immune system work. Painkillers are only helpful if you have aches and pains; and if you have a fever your doctor may recommend suitable medications.
After the infection is gone, your body is still tired, and needs to conserve energy to build up normal functioning. Unless you let it rest for a bit, you may acquire "post-viral syndrome" and feel fatigued for many months or even years. Take it easy.
Difference between bacteria and viruses: secondary infections
If you think you have a dose of cold or 'flu, but you don't start improving after a few days; or if you start to get better and then feel worse again; or your temperature goes up higher; or you develop a new cough; or more pain in your ears, throat, or sinuses - then you may have a new (secondary) infection that is caused by bacteria which feed on the sugar-rich molecules in the mucous: They invade you when your immune system is weakened by the virus. In this case, you should seek medical advice.
Bacteria are tiny single-celled organisms only seen under a microscope. They have complex structure and organisation within each cell and they do all the feeding, excreting, multiplying and movement that we associate with living things. There is a wide range of antibiotics that will (mostly) help if you have a bacterial infection that your body is fighting off.
Viruses are even smaller and cannot even be seen under a normal light microscope. They are not usually classed as "living things" and are difficult to get rid of. They are essentially just a protein envelope with their DNA or RNA inside. When they infect us, they inject their genetic blueprint into some of our own cells, which are thus "commandeered" to make more viruses.
Both bacteria and viruses will change over time due to natural mutations, and that is why your doctors will recommend the latest vaccinations or medications. If you are prescribed antibiotics, you should take 'all' the tablets in the packet even if you start to feel better before they are finished. It is important to try to eliminate the stronger, more resistant bacteria so they cannot enter the environment.
Preventing the spread of colds and 'flu
Leviticus chapter 15 verses 11-13 describe how the person with "issue" (discharge; which would include a runny nose) can stop the spread of his disease: "11 And whomsoever he toucheth that hath the issue, and hath not rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.12 And the vessel of earth, that he toucheth which hath the issue, shall be broken: and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.13 And when he that hath an issue is cleansed of his issue; then he shall number to himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in running water, and shall be clean."
This is really good advice today. If you have any infectious illness, or if you are caring for people who are sick, you should wash and dry your hands more than usual. You don't need antiseptic washes; the most important thing is to DRY YOUR HANDS. In Biblical days, the dry heat of the desert dried the skin immediately, but we are in a humid bathroom and we need to take more care.
The Mythbusters and other researchers have shown that any towel is more effective than air dryers at keeping your hands clean. The germs can only spread around when they are wet. Even a tiny drop of water on your hands can transfer "bugs" to your wet mouth, nose, eyes or another surface (waiting for someone else with wet hands).
Preventative vaccines are recommended for vulnerable people to help prevent influenza, but this vaccination will NOT stop you getting colds this winter. Colds and 'flu viruses totally different types of "bugs" and the symptoms of the two diseases are not the same.
The next article will describe how vaccines work.
Note: These two articles do NOT provide medical advice, they are scientific descriptions of the currently-known facts. If anyone becomes ill, has trouble breathing, has high temperatures or is are worried about something just not being right, then they should seek medical advice to ensure appropriate medical treatment.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html