Ways to reduce the spread of colds and flu

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Ways to reduce the spread of colds and flu

Updated July 2023 | 5 min read
Expert contributor Ian Fredericks, professional services manager at Ramsay Pharmacy
Words by Stephanie Osfield and Lucy E Cousins

Reduce the spread of germs this winter and feel better with these simple steps.

Every year colds and flu cause thousands of Aussies to reach for a box of tissues and a packet of throat lozenges. However, the effects of catching the flu or a cold can vary from person to person, and they can range from being mildly irritating to debilitating.

The severity of the symptoms depends on not only the virility of the strain each year, but also on your overall health and whether you’ve been vaccinated, says Ian Fredericks, national professional services manager at Ramsay Pharmacy.

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

When you’ve caught a cold you may feel tired and have a sore throat, a cough, or a runny or stuffy nose. The flu, however, can cause more severe symptoms and can be a serious illness. Flu-related symptoms can include chills, fever, aching muscles and joints, diarrhoea, sneezing and loss of appetite.

"Colds and flus are caused by viruses, and viruses typically make you feel sick for up to two weeks. Also, it can result in coloured sputum [phlegm] being produced," says Ian.

Are colds and the flu contagious?

Yes, both the influenza virus as well as the common cold are contagious. So it’s important to take steps to reduce the risk of spreading it to others.

Healthline has a handy guide on how long you may be contagious, but overall these are the guidelines:

  • Contagious with a cold: a few days before symptoms start until up to two weeks after you’re exposed to the virus.
  • Contagious with the flu: one to four days before symptoms start until three to seven days after you get sick.

How can I prevent the spread of my cold or flu infection?

To help prevent spreading the cold or flu to those around you, try these suggestions:

1. Practise good cold and flu hygiene

When you’re around others, try to cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow when coughing or sneezing, and use tissues to blow your nose, then throw them away. Whether you’re sick or not, wash your hands regularly using soap and running water and dry them thoroughly, especially after coughing, sneezing or preparing food.

"We’re in a much better place for personal hygiene now than where we were before the [COVID-19] pandemic," says Ian. "However, even though the pandemic is over, it’s important to keep up those good hygiene habits, especially around hand hygiene."

2. Rest up

When you have a cold or flu, try to get as much rest and sleep as you can to give your immune system a chance to fight off the virus. This includes staying home from work and social events, and not going out to do the shopping or run errands.

Some of the natural ways to relieve the symptoms of a cold or the flu include resting, drinking enough liquids, taking warm baths or steamy showers, drinking tea with honey and keeping warm.

"Do anything that makes you happy and relieves the misery of a cold or flu. Be kind to yourself, especially if you are unwell, and stay nice and warm in bed," advises Ian. "It’s okay to stay at home if you need to."

To boost your immune system, hydrate often and eat wholefoods and nutrient-dense meals, including oily fish, nuts, Greek yoghurt, garlic and chicken soup.

3. Consider the annual flu vaccine

Australians can access the flu vaccine through their local GP and some pharmacies.

A free seasonal influenza vaccine is funded under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for the following groups at higher risk of complications from influenza:

  • people aged 65 and over (a vaccine that is specifically designed to produce a higher immune response is available for this group)
  • all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over
  • pregnant women (the influenza vaccine can be given at any stage of pregnancy)
  • all children aged six months to less than five years of age
  • all individuals aged five years and over with medical risk conditions, including chronic respiratory conditions, immunocompromising conditions, cardiac disease and diabetes.

"The flu vaccine reduces the chance of symptomatic flu by 40 to 60%, but the protection starts to wear off after three to four months," says Ian. "Getting your flu vaccine in April or May means that you'll have the strongest protection between April and August, which is peak flu season. That said, it’s never too late to vaccinate!"

HCF members can also get free one-on-one health checks at selected Ramsay Pharmacy locations, from blood pressure and diabetes assessments to asthma and medication management. Book a free health check.

Should I worry if my child has a cold or flu?

The flu can be more serious in very young children (aged five or under) and in children living with chronic disease. "Children can dehydrate very quickly, so it’s very important to make sure they are drinking plenty of fluids if they are sick," adds Ian. "Oral rehydration products are great."

Should I take antibiotics for the flu?

Ian says it’s a common misconception that taking antibiotics can help clear up the flu or a cold.

"[Unless prescribed by your practitioner], there is [generally] no need to take antibiotics if you have a cold or a flu, even if it has lasted for over a week and there is coloured sputum. They generally won’t help you get better any faster, but [taking them] can encourage the development of resistant bacteria, which means that antibiotics may not work effectively if you need them in future."

When should I see a doctor about my cold or the flu?

Most people who catch a cold or the flu won’t need to visit a doctor. However, if your symptoms are getting worse or you’re worried, it may be time to seek help.

"If you have cold or flu symptoms and vomit frequently and/or cannot drink fluids, have an intense headache, have chest pain, breathing difficulties, a rash with fever or are feeling very ill and are worried, you should see your GP," says Ian.

Your pharmacist can also help you manage your symptoms and refer you to your GP if needed. 

A GP at your fingertips

If you have any health concerns, please speak to your doctor. If you’re unable to make it to the doctor physically, our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for you to access telehealth services.

All HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See hcf.com.au/gp2u for more information.

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