Often, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a viral and bacterial infection. And to make it even more complicated, they can be happen at the same time or one after another! Your doctor can make a diagnosis by taking a history and examining you closely.
With viral infections, it is about controlling the temperature, taking plenty of fluids, and resting so our body has the energy to fight off the bug that is causing havoc.
What about the flu jab
(influenza vaccine), does it work?
This is a complicated area.
Let's first look at how the flu jab works.
Clever scientists have worked out that the flu usually causes problems, because when they invade our body our immune system, or the the soldiers of our body, are not prepared.
Most of the time they have never seen that flu virus before, and so are slow to react. This gives the bug time to attack, making us sick. Usually 3-4 days after the virus attacks, our soldiers finally muster, and fight back, and it takes another 3-4 days to mop up all the bugs that are floating around.
Hence why we often continue to feel worse for the first 3-4 days, and then start to improve after that.
The flu jab prepares our soldiers.
Each flu virus has their unique uniform (protein coating), which is recognisable by our soldiers. The flu jab takes the uniform of the virus (not the virus itself), and injects it into our body. Our soldiers then look at the uniform, and learn that whatever comes into our body wearing this uniform the next time, is an enemy.
The 'practice drill' of encountering the enemy uniform, can makes us a bit unwell for a few days, and that is our soldiers practicing, rather than an actual 'flu' infection. Because there isn't actually any flu in the jab!
The 'flu' virus changes their uniform all the time. Every year it changes, and that's why there is a flu jab for every year.
Sometimes I will see people who comes in unwell, and I tell them “You've got the flu,” to which they answer with surprise “but I've had the flu jab this year!”
In New Zealand, most of the time we take the type of flu from North America's winter – 6-months before our winter.
We are counting on the fact that most of the travellers will be from that part of the world, as we are both English speaking countries.
However there are still South American flu, European flu, African flu, Asian flu that are floating out there, and we would not be protected against these, if they should land on the Land of the Long White Clouds.
In short, most doctors would recommend people who are more susceptible to becoming unwell, for example those with chronic breathing issues like asthma, and other chronic illnesses like diabetes, to get the flu jab each year. It reduces some of the risks of becoming unwell on top of their medical conditions.
However, if someone is usually fit and well with no long term medical conditions, it then becomes a personal choice whether to get the jab or not. I often recommend, however, even if someone is fit and healthy, that they protect those around them that may be susceptible by getting a jab themselves so as not to pass it to the vulnerable loved ones.