Brace yourself for a harsh cold and flu season

BY BRIGITTE TAIM - JUNE 17, 2015

Recent studies from around the world indicate that climate change could bring on more severe cold and flu outbreaks, warn experts

Mariska van Aswegen, spokesperson of cold and flu pharmaceutical firm, Pharma Dynamics, says it was once thought that global warming might bring on fewer deaths caused by respiratory infections during the colder months of the year, but the latest research by Arizona State University found a significant association between warm winters and severe colds and flu seasons that follow.

“According to the study, researchers examined government data for each flu season over the past 15 years and found that when a winter had above average temperatures, cold and flu strains were more aggressive 72% of the time in the winter that followed. Researchers also noticed an early onset of the two main types of flu that cause seasonal epidemics, namely influenza A (H1N1) and B (H3N2).

“As the earth’s average temperature continues to rise, SA’s winters are starting to become warmer too,” says van Aswegen. Preliminary data from 20 selected weather stations distributed across South Africa, indicates that 2014 was the 10th warmest year since 1961. On average, SA’s mean temperature has increased by about 0.13 °C per decade.

“Thirty years or so ago, the average onset of the cold and flu season was the first week of June, but the trend over the past several years point to an earlier shift in the season, starting the first week of May already,” says van Aswegen.

Reports by SA medical insurance schemes also suggest that we could be in for the worst cold and flu season on record. Medical aids confirm that they’ve already received a significant number of claims for cold and flu related illnesses this winter and that the strains in circulation this year seem to be much more aggressive and highly infectious. And to make matters worse, the peak of the cold and flu season isn’t even here yet.

“A typical cold or flu can last up to a week, but if you’ve contracted a more severe strain you could be down for two weeks or longer, even in individuals considered to be otherwise healthy.

So why might a warm winter predict a nasty cold and flu season next time around? Van Aswegen suggest that the flu virus is more difficult to transmit during mild weather conditions, because it dies faster in warmer air, and if fewer people get the flu the one year, more people could possibly be susceptible to contracting it the next season.

She says the findings certainly point to the possibility that a mild winter could cause a more miserable flu season the next time, therefore taking additional immune-boosting supplements and going for the flu shot would be advisable.

For those who have contracted a cold or flu, Van Aswegen advises the following:

  1. Take at least two to three days off work. This will give you the essential rest that your body needs to recover while limiting other people’s exposure to the virus.
  2. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids to help rid your body of the illness.
  3. Use a nasal decongestant for three to five days, which will reduce inflammation of the nasal passages and slow-down mucus production.
  4. Flush out your sinuses with a Neti pot or saline solution for a more natural approach.
  5. Take over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies, which will go a long way in relieving symptoms such as a fever, headache, aching throat and congestion. If you suffer from an underlying condition, consult with your doctor first to ensure that OTC medicine won’t interfere with your current medicine regime. 

In South Africa, colds and flu related deaths in the elderly is at least three times higher than in the US. Widespread HIV and tuberculosis have also been identified as heightening the risk of severe flu related illness in the country.

Adults older than 65, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic heart and lung disease are at increased risk of cold and flu complications.