Imperial College London

Why do I get the sniffles each winter?

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Flu virus

No winter season passes without its characteristic sniffles and sneezes. Why is it that every year cold and flu viruses return in full force?

No winter season passes without its characteristic sniffles and sneezes. Why is it that every year cold and flu viruses return in full force? Well, these coughs and sneezes help spread airborne particles containing the infectious viruses. Millions of people each year contract colds and flu, and in the case of the latter, between 250,000 and 500,000 cases are fatal.

Unlike diseases such as tetanus or hepatitis B that can be successfully treated with vaccines, there is no universal vaccine for influenza. Existing vaccinations ‘train’ your immune system to identify the surface proteins of a low dose of virus. Unfortunately, the high mutation rate of the flu virus means that new proteins evolve each season. The World Health Organisation predicts what strains of the virus are most likely to circulate in the next year and supply appropriate vaccinations. It takes pharmaceutical manufacturers about six months to create a vaccine. However, it’s entirely possible that an overlooked strain may become prominent, making a vaccination useless for the next flu season.

Scientists are busy working on a ‘universal’ vaccine for flu; but until it arrives most of us are probably better off getting some rest and maybe sipping on a ‘hot toddy’.

Reporter

Stephanie McClellan

Stephanie McClellan
Department of Humanities

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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