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|Volume 10 |Issue 48 | December 23, 2011 ||
People aren't always armed and ready with sweaters, socks and scarves until after the cold chill of a Bangladeshi winter arrives. Being prepared for the onslaught of common colds, influenzas and other seasonal winter diseases takes foresight – something most of us lack while we're busy getting on with our lives. And unfortunately for us all, viruses don't have to look up our addresses to hunt us down.
“A child's immune system is less well developed than an adult's, which is why they're more susceptible to infection,” says Dr Tahmina C Islam, former Managing Director of Gene Cure Health Care. “Children with fever often succumb to pneumonia as the virus goes straight to their lungs so it's important to risk it at home and go to the hospital.”
She also explains that with more pollutants and viruses in this dry and dusty season, those suffering from allergies or asthma may find themselves suffering more frequent or severe attacks. “What happens in our country is that when the virus gets too much, people become weak and risk catching a bacterial infection. That's when people really need to go to the doctor.” With more than 200 different viruses that can cause the common cold, anyone can become infected again and again, regardless of what medication you've taken.
The common cold is what it says on the tin – common. Adults can suffer two to four colds a year while children can have three to eight. There is no quick fix to the common cold – the blocked or runny nose, sneezing, cough and sore throat will just have to be endured. There are natural and simple ways, like having warm smoothing drinks and taking paracetamol, to help relieve the frustration of having a tissue become an extension to one's nose.
Influenza, which is better known as 'the flu', is a more severe viral infection than the common cold. Dr Islam says: “Flu symptoms are similar to that of a cold's but there is a difference between the two diseases.” Cold symptoms come on gradually, affect just your nose and throat and are mild enough to allow you to still continue with your day. Flu symptoms on the other hand, come on quickly, and include fever, aching muscles, fatigue, headaches, chills, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.
“Flu viruses are extremely contagious and travel through the air in droplets which you can inhale or touch and then transfer to your nose, mouth or eyes,” says Dr Islam. The UK runs an awareness campaign for flu and its slogan effectively sums up what people should do: 'Catch it, Bin it, Kill it'. Germs spread easily so using tissues to catch your cough or sneeze helps to contain the virus. As germs can live for several hours, it's important to throw away your tissue after using it and not use it again. And finally, to complete the trifecta, washing your hands kills germs and helps ensure they don't transfer on to every surface you touch after sneezing.
“With influenza, people should rest, drink a lot of water and only take paracetamol to lower their fever,” explains Dr Islam. “If fever doesn't subside after three days, they shouldn't take medication themselves but visit a hospital, health clinic or doctor as they can give you a blood test and diagnose you properly.”
Influenza can be serious for young children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with weak immune systems and those with long-term medical conditions like diabetes. If you or someone in your family falls into one of these groups, do not think twice about seeing your doctor or visiting a hospital as what can seem like just a fever can quickly become something worse.
The viral infection that we recognise as the common cold or influenza can affect the lungs and causes the more serious diseases bronchitis and pneumonia. Bronchitis is inflammation of the main air passages to the lungs and can be caused by a virus, bacteria, smoking and breathing in certain chemicals. The main symptom is a hacking cough that might sometimes bring up thick yellow-grey mucus. Other symptoms include chest discomfort, fatigue, fever, shortness of breath and wheezing.
There is no cure for either acute or chronic bronchitis, which is why it is important not to misdiagnose yourself and head on over to the local pharmacy for a dose of antibiotics. Doctors recommend getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluid and only taking paracetamol or ibuprofen (never together) to alleviate headaches, fever, and aches and pains. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition, in which you must have a cough with mucus most days for at least three months. As of yet the only treatment is to make major life style changes, like quitting smoking, moving away from air pollution, or changing the job in which you were exposed to certain chemicals.
While bronchitis can come and go without you needing to see a doctor, the symptoms are similar to that of pneumonia, which does require medical attention, treatment, and sometimes hospitalisation. The recent news of young children and the elderly dying of the lung infection only highlights how fatal the disease can be in Bangladesh.
Pneumonia is commonly caused by a bacterial infection, but different bacteria, viruses, and (rarely) fungi can cause the tiny air sacs in one or both of your lungs to become inflamed. These fill up with fluid which prompts cough symptoms, fever, chills and breathing problems.
While bacterial bronchitis and bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics, these diseases caused by a viral infection cannot. Dr Islam advised: “Even if you can self-medicate when you are ill, you shouldn't be diagnosing a disease a doctor will know better.” Doctors can consider whether you have an underlying condition, such as asthma or emphysema (damage to the small airways in your lungs), and offer treatment or advice that a pharmacy simply could not.
For those who can afford it, picking up any drug under the sun from the pharmacy is easier and less invasive than a visit to a doctor or hospital. However, there is a reason why doctors and nurses train for years to recognise symptoms, understand complicated medical conditions and assess which drugs to treat specific diseases. Recognising the subtle differences between one drug and another (if there is any) is not everyone's area of expertise. And yet the availability of every drug under the sun over the counter (at a price) allows people to bypass a medical opinion (something you cannot do in many countries abroad).
“Not taking the right or full dose of medication that you don't need or is not helping you will make the virus or bacteria resistant to the drug and your kidneys will be overloaded with something it needs to flush out,” said Dr Islam.
“It's important to know how to prevent diseases becoming severe. When winter comes, people are not taking care.”
So eat fruit and vegetables to boost your immune system and dress warmly, if you're not already. I know the saying goes 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away' but oranges have a lot more vitamin C in them and are more readily available in Bangladesh.
“Diabetics should eat a whole orange rather than drink a glass of orange juice as it has more fibre and less sugar,” said Dr Islam. “There are also plenty of traditional remedies like ginger tea and moshla chai (spiced tea) to act like throat lozenges for cold or flu symptoms. Drinking fluids, like warm water boiled with cloves in the morning, act as a natural precaution to winter diseases. A spoon of honey or tulsi leaves in hot water and masala tea also help to sooth a cough and there is no recommended limit to how much you have, unlike with medication.”
The cold weather is not some unwelcome guest we have forgotten will be passing by so hopefully with the foresight of eating well, staying warm, and not dabbling with medication, we can protect ourselves better against the elements.
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