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Colds, Flu and COVID-19: Tips for Prevention

September 30, 2020

Every fall, Canadians brace themselves for cold and flu season. This year, we face the added complication of the global pandemic, and the looming possibility of what health experts are calling a “twindemic” – the overlap of flu season and a surge in COVID-19 infections. Together, these diseases could overwhelm the health care system, so it’s important to continue taking precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Colds, flu (or influenza) and COVID-19 are all caused by viruses. They spread through the air when a person who is sick talks, coughs or sneezes. Tiny droplets of mucus can spread as far as six feet. You can become infected if the droplets get into your nose, eyes or mouth, or if you touch your face with your hands after touching a contaminated object or surface.

These are the symptoms of colds, flu and COVID-19:

Colds: Sore throat, runny nose, congestion, cough, sometimes a slight fever; symptoms develop gradually.

Flu: Fatigue, sore throat, fever (not always), chills, muscle aches, headaches, cough, congestion, runny or stuffy nose; symptoms tend to develop abruptly.

COVID-19: New cough or a worsening chronic cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, temperature of 38°C or higher, fever, chills, fatigue or weakness, muscle or body aches, new loss of smell or taste, headache, gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting), feeling very unwell. Urgent symptoms that require emergency medical help include: significant difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, new confusion or difficulty waking up.

The flu is more severe than a cold. A cold lasts seven to 10 days, and the flu lasts five to seven days after symptoms begin. People often continue to cough and feel weak and fatigued for a few weeks afterward.

COVID-19 is not yet fully understood, but we do know that symptoms may take up to 14 days to appear after exposure, and that the virus can be transmitted by someone who is infected but does not show any symptoms. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, stay at home and contact your health care professional or local public health authority about getting tested.

Health complications

In serious cases, a cold or the flu can lead to serious complications, including a lung infection called pneumonia. Older adults, the very young, people who have chronic illnesses (such as heart disease or asthma) and pregnant women are especially at risk, because they have weaker immune systems. People in high-risk groups who develop flu symptoms should see their physician early in their illness. Physicians may prescribe antiviral or anti-influenza medication.

Certain symptoms require emergency care. If you experience shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, dizziness, severe or persistent vomiting, confusion, or flu-like symptoms that seem to get better but then return with fever and a worsened cough, seek medical help as soon as possible.

Most people with a mild case of COVID-19 recover on their own. Certain people are at higher risk of developing complications: older adults; people with medical conditions (such as lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer); and people with weakened immune systems from a medical condition or treatment (such as chemotherapy).

If you have tested positive for COVID-19, you must self-isolate for 14 days, whether or not you show symptoms. The Government of Canada also advises: “If you did not have symptoms when you got tested but then develop symptoms during your 14-day isolation period, you must restart your isolation time.”

Prevention is the key

We can all help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Here’s how you can protect yourself and your loved ones this season:

Get the flu shot. Everyone aged six months and older should get the flu shot each year. This is the best way to prevent the flu and avoid infecting others. If you do get the flu, the vaccine can reduce its severity and duration. (There is no vaccine for colds).

Avoid people who are sick. The global pandemic has taught all of the importance of physical distancing and quarantining. You can further protect yourself by washing your hands often and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, telephones and faucets. Avoid sharing items (towels, cups, cutlery, etc.).

Practise proper handwashing. Using warm or cold water, wet your hands and apply soap. Lather your hands thoroughly – including between your fingers, the backs of your hands and under your fingernails – for at least 20 seconds. Rinse your hands under running water and dry them on a clean towel. Always wash your hands before preparing food or eating, after using the washroom, handling garbage, touching animals, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, touching other people or providing care to someone else.

Get enough rest. Poor sleep can dampen the immune system. Stress can also take a toll on the body’s defenses, so try to reduce stress however you can.

Raise the humidity. When the air is very dry, the flu virus can survive longer and spread more easily. A humidifier can make breathing indoor air more comfortable and help keep the flu at bay.

Exercise regularly. Staying active strengthens the immune system.

Eat a healthy diet. To support immunity, include plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in your diet, such as bell peppers, citrus fruit, garlic, broccoli and sweet potatoes.

Stay hydrated. Drinking water will help keep your nasal passages moist, which helps stop cold and flu germs in their tracks.

Additional resources

Flu (influenza): Prevention and risks (Government of Canada)
Flu clinics across Canada (Government of Canada)
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) (Government of Canada)
COVID Alert (Canada’s notification app)

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