But it’s not just young children, the elderly, and those with preexisting conditions who must take all necessary measures to ward off respiratory diseases this winter.
It’s rare for a young, well person to die of the flu but “it does happen”, warns Dr Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“Look, there was a quite lovely, brilliant doctor from our year who died when he was 28, a fit, well young man, from influenza, with no comorbidities,” Price says. “It was shocking and awful.”
On top of this, Barr says many people in the community have become blasé about illnesses “that have had a bit of a holiday and [have now] come back in various forms”.
“COVID’s taken all the limelight,” he says, overshadowing not only the flu, but respiratory syncytial virus, which frequently leads to bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children and is now spreading fast.
Not to mention whooping cough, adds Pearce, otherwise known as the “100-day-cough”. “I just did a study showing whooping cough is probably six times more common than reported,” he says. “We do not tend to test for it.” The virus is potentially fatal for babies in the first few months of life. He urges all Australians to be vaccinated against it.
What else can we do, to help ourselves this winter?
You might want to use a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter in your home or office “appropriate for the volume of the room”, Barr says, to help reduce the viral load of particles in a room. “But they need to be running constantly so they can filter enough of the air to make a difference,” he says.
If you’re “particularly unwell”, don’t just assume you’ve got COVID and test only for it, but instead ask your doctor for a respiratory multiplex text, says Barr. This will test you for COVID plus other viruses.
Because if you do have the flu – and it’s detected within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms – you can be prescribed antiviral medication that can reduce the severity and length of the illness. Antivirals, says Barr, are vastly underused in the community.
And if you do get sick, regardless from what virus, it also wouldn’t hurt, says Price, to clean your toothbrush, inhaler or cosmetics with soap and water or an alcohol wipe to help prevent germs from re-entering your system.
And, she adds, people should know that all the measures we’ve become used to during COVID – like masks and coughing into your elbow – are also useful to protect us from other respiratory viruses.
“We’ve all noticed the open-mouthed cough in a closed space with people; do we not understand germ theory yet?” says Price, with a note of exasperation.
And don’t forget the simple but effective measure of disinfecting your hands, especially before touching your mouth or nose.
“There’s not one occasion when I touch a surface that I won’t use a bit of alcohol on my hands,” says Ranganathan.
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