With the news that the government ordered 20,000 additional vaccines, this year’s flu season sounds dangerously serious. Pharmacies are running out of stock, and Mater Dei hospital is at full capacity due to the outbreak. This is a good chance to remember common misconceptions and meet the flu season in full combat readiness.

Influenza is an acute viral infection of respiratory organs

To put in simple terms, it is a rapidly developing illness of our breathing system. The fact that it’s viral means it cannot be cured with antibiotics. Antiviral drugs are available, but ‘flu medications’ in popular use do not refer to actual antivirals. The former are typically symptom relief.

It should not be confused with common cold

According to the World Health Organization, the main symptoms are sudden fever, dry cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, sore throat, runny nose and the general feeling of being unwell (malaise). While the respiratory symptoms are similar, there is no sudden spike in fever with common cold. Many people self-medicate common cold with rest, tea and symptom relief, but flu symptoms must be treated seriously if you belong to any of the risk groups: pregnant women, elderly individuals, people with chronic medical conditions or immunity-related conditions.

Flu spreads by contact

Seasonal flu is easily transmitted in crowded areas, when an infected person disperses infectious droplets by coughing or sneezing, or toucing objects. It cannot be emphasised enough: people should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, or, if they don’t have a tissue nearby, cough into their elbow. As anyone taking public transportation in Malta will attest, this habit is rare to find, so perhaps more education is needed on the prevention of infecting others. Washing hands often is also essential.

Most treatment only relieves symptoms

According to WHO, patients should receive antivirals if they are developing severe conditions (notably pneumonia or sepsis) or belong to risk groups. Otherwise most treatment is symptomatic, focusing on relieving fever, cough and other symptoms and waiting for the person’s immunity to deal with the actual virus by itself. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics when they suspect that a bacterial infection accompanies the flu. Antibiotics do not treat the flu itself.

WHO studies have shown that no known drugs can cure or shorten the cycle of respiratory infections, or prevent the development of pneumonia. Also, experts do not recommend hurrying to suppress symptoms. Cough is the body’s natural way to clear secretion from the airways. All the industry for suppressing cough is there to help us sleep and be productive, not to cure flu (or common cold).

The most effective way to prevent flu is said to be vaccination. People belonging to risk groups are advised to get vaccinated every year.

Various sources recommend natural symptom relief in the form of teas, concoctions and soups. If you develop a common cold or flu, your grandmother and your Facebook friends will tell you to drink tea with honey and lemon. This is one of the most common natural methods to relieve symptoms and boost one’s immunity. Some sources warn, however, that ginger can cause heartburn, and lemon influences dehydration. These products are also said to be hard on your liver and teeth, so use everything in moderation. Teas, soups and alcohol (including in cough syrups) are known for their soothing effects, but they do not influence the way your immune system deals with the virus.

An older (2001) WHO study shows that there is no scientific evidence that vitamin C can prevent or influence symptoms. So stock it up in small doses throughout the year, boost your immunity and hope for the best during this season.