More cold and flu cases normal at this time of year, says expert

Acting clinical director of infectious diseases centre allays concerns amid Wuhan outbreak

A higher number of people coming down with influenza and the common cold is a normal phenomena at this time of the year.
A higher number of people coming down with influenza and the common cold is a normal phenomena at this time of the year.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

The Wuhan outbreak, caused by a still-unidentified virus, has heightened anxiety levels among people here as a higher number of people come down with influenza and the common cold.

But the influenza outbreak here is a normal phenomenon at this time of the year and nothing to worry about, said Dr Shawn Vasoo, acting clinical director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases. He also gave the assurance that it is not the result of a new bug that has surfaced. He said: "Our National Public Health Laboratory sub-types and monitors influenza virus strains in Singapore."

According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), four out of five flu cases here are caused by the A(H1N1) virus. This virus overtook the B virus last month in the number of infections it caused. Earlier last year, it was the A(H3N2) that was prominent.

The current flu vaccine protects against all three strains. Dr Vasoo recommended vaccination - especially for the elderly, the very young and people with other illnesses that make them more susceptible. The flu vaccine gives about 60 per cent to 70 per cent protection, he said.

Unlike temperate countries, where flu tends to strike during winter, it occurs year-round in Singapore. But Dr Vasoo said there tends to be slight peaks during the winter periods in both the northern and southern hemispheres - or around this time, and mid-year.

Generally, among people with fever, cough and/or sore throat, more have the common cold than the flu. But currently, about 54 per cent of people with flu-like symptoms have the flu, when the number is usually less than half.

In the week from Dec 29 to Jan 4, polyclinics saw an average of 3,842 patients a day with acute upper respiratory infections. This is higher than the median over the past five years, which was 2,822, according to MOH data. Of the 3,842 cases, 3.4 per cent had flu-like illness.

The symptoms of a cold and the flu overlap, but are usually more severe for the flu. Both are spread easily through microscopic droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or even just breathes out.

The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says a sneeze can spread the virus 2m away. Not only that, it can linger in the air for hours.

Dr Vasoo said people who are sick should take medical leave and rest at home to prevent spreading the disease. He added: "If you are working and you have a mild cold, it is good practice to wear a disposable surgical face mask."


  • To reduce the spread of the flu, the Ministry of Health urges people to:

     • Wash their hands with soap before eating and after going to the toilet;

     • Cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and throw the tissue away into a bin immediately;

     • Stay home from work or school when sick, and wear a mask if going out; and

     • Avoid sharing food/drinks, eating utensils, toothbrushes or towels with those who display symptoms of influenza.

Doctors should not give antibiotics for the flu or cold unless the person also has a secondary bacterial infection, he said. This is because colds and the flu are caused by viruses and not bacteria, which antibiotics treat.

MOH said it is closely monitoring the flu situation, and advised people to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to minimise the spread of the virus.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'More cold and flu cases normal at this time of year, says expert'. Print Edition | Subscribe