With the kids back to school, the workforce in full flight and average temperatures set to drop, potential flu sufferers may wonder should they brave their hospitals or sit it out at home?

So what have I got, the cold or the flu?
"We can look at the differences at different levels", explains Dr. Brendan O'Shea, Director of the Post Graduate Resource Centre of the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP).

"The first difference, micro-biologically, is that they're caused by different bugs. Flu is primarily caused by the influenza virus whereas common colds are caused by the rhinovirus or by the RSV virus."

"The second difference is how they affect different people. Because they're viral illnesses they tend to come on quite quickly, and often affect different sites on the same patient; for example nose, eyes, chest and muscles."

"When you've got a cold; you've got a cough, a cold running nose. You feel a bit ropey, a bit tired and uncomfortable" O'Shea explains.

"But with the flu, you've been hit with a sledgehammer. Your energy is gone. The level of symptoms are far more intense. Your muscles are on fire. The throat is very gritty. It's the intensity of the thing."

I've definitely got the flu: How on Earth will I survive?
"Without any tests, most patients and doctors know if its' a head cold or a flu mainly by the intensity. There are similarities, but its' intensity."

In lieu of visitng the hospital, O'Shea recommends the following:

  • Avoid physical exertion such as the gym; don't try and run it off.
  • Plan a quiet routine for the next few days.
  • Take paracetamol every four hours (will make your symptoms easier)
  • Paracetamol is particularly effective with children as it prevents febrile convulsions (seizures due to fever)
  • Take adequate fluids - dehydration is a big contributing factor to secondary illnesses such as tonsillitis, middle ear infection or pneumonia.
  • Avoid Hot Whiskeys and alcohol as this worsens dehydration

"Dehydration makes it easier for bacterial infections to develop" O'Shea warns. "The elderly are at a particularly greater risk, as they can dehydrate quicker."

Hospitals are over-burdened with patients this January

Hospitals are over-burdened with patients this January

When should you really see the doctor?
"Especially if you have a previous medical condition, such cancer, diabetes, uncontrolled blood pressure. Be a bit quicker to seek help" O'Shea advises. 

"The HSE have a range of self-help websites. Certainly be in contact with your GP office. You can speak to the practice nurse, remember a phone consultation is helpful."

"Increasing numbers of us are beginning to use tele-medicine. It's not mainstream just yet, but this is a good example of it reducing your need to come into a crowded waiting room, pass on your bugs and potentially pick up some other ones." 

"If you have particular doubts, or a complex history and fear its falling outside a regular influenza, contact your General Practitioner" O'Shea says.

"Beyond this, if there's an indication you need to be in hospital, that decision can be taken by you, the GP and the practice nurse."

If there's no doubt -  then stay at home!
"If you are not in significant doubt, please do not be in contact" O'Shea says. "If you are a healthy adult, doing a bit of suffering, you're taking fluids, there's nothing else that needs to be done for you. Don't ring just to be in touch."

"Regrettably, a small number of adults feel the need to consult with their GP or self-refer into hospital. They're doing nobody any favors, particularly themselves. They're burdening the service" he warns.

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