The cold-and-flu season typically varies from one season to the next, but according to experts, we might be in for a longer spell this year.

Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, says labs across the country started to see an increase in positive colds and flu tests from the last week in May – two weeks later than the 2016 season.

“The colds and flu season generally peaks between six and nine weeks after it starts, but this year it spiked early, in the week starting 26 June. Often when this occurs, it’s not uncommon to see a later, second peak in August due to a change in circulating strains, so consumers should keep up their immune-boosting supplementation to ward off nasty bugs.

“The average duration of the cold-and-flu season over the past 33 years has been 12 weeks, but it could have us in its grip for as long as 18 weeks, which takes us well into September,” she warns.

Is global warming to blame?

There has also been a lot of speculation around how global warming is likely to impact the cold-and-flu season.

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Jennings points out that it was once thought that global warming could bring on fewer deaths caused by respiratory infections during the colder months of the year, but the most recent research by Arizona State University found a significant association between warm winters and severe colds and flu cases.

Based on current weather models, the SA winters have become warmer by 1 to 2°C compared to a few decades ago with the northernmost provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal experiencing temperature increases well above that in winter.

According to Jennings, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which provinces have been hardest hit by the flu this season since the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has differing numbers of surveillance sites per province and is therefore unable to calculate attack rates per region as results will be skewed, but she describes this year’s cold-and-flu season as moderate.

Recent research by Arizona State University found a significant association between warm winters and severe cold and flu cases.

Monitoring colds and flu

Another complication is monitoring cold strains as there are more than 100 viruses that could cause what a sick person would term as a cold. Jennings says even the most common cold virus, the rhinovirus, has more than a hundred different strains.

“There are usually 20 to 30 different types of rhinovirus circulating each season in one geographic area, and it’s interesting to note that only about 10% of those will show up again next year, which makes the development of a vaccine for the common cold extremely difficult.

“However, when it comes to influenza it’s a lot easier to monitor since there are only about three strains each season. The predominant flu strain this year has been influenza A (H3N2), which was detected in 87% of patients with a positive influenza result. The dominant H3N2 strain is the variety that typically causes more severe [symptoms].

The average duration of the cold-and-flu season has been 12 weeks, but it could have us in its grip for as long as 18 weeks, which takes us well into September

“Influenza A (H1N1)pdm09, known as swine flu, was the second most prevalent this season. It was also the virus that emerged in 2009 which caused severe illness among children and adults alike, but was only detected in 8% of patients. Influenza B – a type of flu that presents similar symptoms to influenza A – accounted for the rest. While there were many reports of severe flu symptoms, the overall flu season has been mild.

“To date there has also not been a noticeable difference in the annual increase in patients with pneumonia and influenza or deaths related to upper respiratory diseases in the surveillance of hospitalised- and out -patients,” remarks Jennings.

Many relied on OTC colds and flu medication to aid them in their recovery. More than four million units of cold-and-flu treatments were sold over the winter period – almost 4% more than last year.

Source: Pharma Dynamics

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