The onset of changing weather is an important sign of the cold and flu season and thus, you might be concerned about the different types of viruses that can attack you. 

Regardless of what viral infections are doing the rounds, following certain tips can help you strengthen your natural immunity and prevent any illnesses.

Before we dive into the preventive tips, let’s understand what viral infections are.

Introduction to Viral Infections

Viral infections are the most common reasons for illnesses in adults as well as in children. While adults have 2 to 3 episodes of such infections in a year, children are more prone to them and experience about 5 to 7 episodes in a year.

Viral infections are caused by a virus. Viruses are microscopic agents that can replicate only inside the living cells of a human body. 

Most viral infections are contagious (spread easily from one infected person to another healthy person) but they produce only mild to moderate symptoms, for example, the common cold or the yearly flu. 

A virus can also cause severe illnesses such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), Ebola, influenza, and COVID-19. 

  • HIV/AIDS is a potentially life-threatening condition that damages your immune system (organs and processes that defend your body against infections and toxins).

  • Ebola or Ebola Virus Disease (EVDor Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF)) is a viral hemorrhagic fever caused by Ebola viruses. It causes severe bleeding, organ failure and can lead to death.

  • Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system — your nose, throat, and lungs.

  • COVID-19 or Coronavirus Disease is an infectious disease caused by a new type of coronavirus (a common group of viruses that causes infections in your nose, throat, and lungs). 

Viral infections not only cause illnesses that affect your upper respiratory system but also cause various skin infections and digestive tract infections. 

Common Cold and The Flu

The common cold is the most common viral infection caused by rhinovirus, coronavirus, or adenovirus. It is an upper respiratory tract infection that usually does not produce any severe symptoms and can be treated at home. 

  • The common cold is seen more in children than in adults. 

  • It produces symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, sneezing, blocked or stuffy nose, low-grade fever, and mild body pain.

  • The common cold is caused when you have a weak immune system, during the winter season, due to exposure to smoking, or other environmental pollutants.

  • If your symptoms do not get better in 3 to 4 days, or if you have a severe headache, body pain, ear pain, high fever, then it is advisable to meet your doctor.

  • Treatment usually consists of decongestants (medicines taken to relieve a blocked nose or soothe a sore throat), anti-inflammatory drugs, and cough medicines.

Flu, also called influenza, is another viral infection that can produce more severe symptoms than the common cold. Flu is caused by influenza viruses that are known to primarily attack your nose, lungs, and throat. It is self-treatable and requires lab testing only if symptoms worsen over a period of time.

  • The flu is commonly seen in children, older adults, and pregnant women.

  • Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue.

  • It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.

  • Flu is short-term and resolves within days or weeks. 

  • Treatment includes IV (intravenous) fluids, a lot of rest, and medicines like paracetamol (medication used to treat pain and fever). IV fluids are liquids with water, sugar, and salt that you might need if you are ill. 

While there is no particular line of treatment for the common cold or flu, prevention is the best solution. 

5 Ways to Prevent The Common Cold and Flu

1. Personal hygiene is very important. Personal hygiene helps keep your immune system from being overwhelmed by germs (viruses). Skin is an important part of the immune system since it acts as the first barrier between germs and body parts, and thus washing hands and taking a bath is necessary.

  • Wash your hands frequently and use soap and warm water. While washing your hands, rub your hands, palms, and fingers really well for at least 15 seconds.
    Make sure you clean your hands before eating all your meals. Your hands come in contact with viruses as you touch or work constantly with them throughout the day. To ensure viruses don’t enter your body from your hands (through touching the nose or the mouth), keep them washed and cleaned.

  •  Ensure to take a bath daily. Taking a bath daily can shun all germs (viruses and bacteria) that stick to your skin and can enter your body through the nose, mouth, or throat. 

  • Brush your teeth twice a day. When you brush your teeth, you cleanse your mouth of all viruses that would have entered your body orally. Brushing teeth twice daily, once in the morning and at night is an important personal hygiene rule to fight off infections.

Other personal hygiene practices include covering your mouth with a tissue, a handkerchief or your elbow whenever you sneeze or cough. This is important to prevent the spread of viral infections through infected respiratory droplets. It is advisable to throw the used tissue immediately. 

Cover your nose and mouth in crowded places and wear a face mask at all times, especially when you are outside. Also, do not share used utensils (like spoons or glasses) to prevent the spreading of viral infections. 

2. Nutrition and diet play a crucial role. A healthy and balanced diet boosts your immune function and prepares your body to fight infections. 

  • Your daily diet should include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat or fat-free milk and milk products, lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts.

  • Foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits (lemons, oranges, kiwi), and vegetables (broccoli, sprouts, potatoes) are known to prevent most viral infections.

  • Other immunity-boosting foods that you should have particularly during the cold and flu seasons (generally from October to February) are green teas, herbal teas, concoctions prepared with a mixture of Indian spices like cumin seeds, carom seeds, turmeric, ginger, etc. 

3. Get an adequate amount of sleep. Sufficient sleep and rest are critical for a healthy immune system. Inadequate sleep can contribute to inflammation and reduce the normal functioning of your immune system. 

Your body releases various immune-boosting proteins during your sleep which are essential to fight most viral infections.

A minimum of 6 to 7 hours of sleep daily for adults and about 8 to 10 hours for children is required for a healthy body and mind. 

4. Reduce stress. Stress makes you vulnerable to viral infections. The master stress hormone, called cortisol affects every single system in your body and chronic activation of the stress hormone weakens your immune system. 

Exercise regularly, spend time with loved ones, enjoy a hobby, practice meditation or yoga to beat daily stress, and to lead a healthy life.

5. Obtain sufficient sunlight exposure. Spending more time in the sun, and thus getting more vitamin D, could reduce your risk of catching a common cold or the flu. Vitamin D is a hormone that plays an important part in modulating your immune system. Hence, exposure to sunlight early in the morning will enhance your immune system.

The bottom line is that eating well, getting exercise and enough sleep, and managing stress will help you keep colds and flu at bay. Consult your general physician/ENT specialist in case your cold or flu symptoms do not become better.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.