On Running and Illness

By: Dr Anver Goga

We runners believe we are an invincible lot, immune from ills due to our fitness levels. Unfortunately we are just as prone to illness as everyone else, at times more so.

I am often asked, Doc, I have the `flu`; can I run? Can I sweat it out?

It is important to distinguish whether you actually have a simple cold or the dreaded influenza, which are quite different and caused by different viruses.

The common cold virus, most commonly caused by a group of viruses called Rhinovirus, affects us 3 – 4 times a year, causing an itchy nose, scratchy throat, itchy eyes and the sniffles. If these symptoms are mild and stay above the neck, don’t cause a fever then it is safe to run. You don’t need an antibiotic. Remember the common cold can become complicated with bacterial infections giving rise to sinusitis, ear infections and migrating down to your chest. Headaches, earaches, cough and yellow nasal discharge suggest this necessitating antibiotics and a longer duration of illness – running not allowed.

A completely different kettle of fish is when you have the actual flu virus, influenza virus. This usually comes around once a year, usually in April / May before the Comrades Marathon. The influenza virus affects the entire body; Fever, malaise, and especially for the runners, muscle soreness. The virus affects all muscles and can also affect the heart muscle leading to heart failure. Symptoms are above and below the neck. It is especially dangerous to run with the flu virus as running can further depress your immunity and raise the core temperature of the body facilitating spread of the virus. Running not advised.

So, how do we get these viruses?

We all know that when a symptomatic person sneezes and you are in close proximity, you are likely to inhale the virus. The virus is also spread by touch. An infected person who may be asymptomatic for up to 24hours after catching the virus spreads the virus by touching door knobs, gym equipment, escalator rails at shopping malls, eating utensils and fridge handles. By touching the infected apparatus ourselves we infect ourselves by touching our nose/ eyes.

How do we avoid getting colds and flu?

By frequent hand washing, especially after touching objects; avoiding people with the flu (easier said than done); by keeping your immunity high; avoiding work and domestic stress (again easier said than done), avoid overtraining, changing into dry clothes as soon as possible after a run and avoiding sudden changes in temperature. High dose Vit C, multivitamin supplements, zinc, ecchinacia; have not been shown to reduce the incidence of getting the flu / colds. Taking the flu vaccine at the end of February prevents getting the flu 70% of the time; Advisable to take it. The  vaccine has dead virus particles in it so you cannot get the flu by taking it.

What to take if you have the flu / cold?

Panado; nasal decongestants, together with lots of fluid and rest. Antibiotics are only needed if you develop bacterial infection. Avoid all anti inflammatory medication like Advil; Celebrex; Coxflam; Arcoxia; Aspirin; Mypaid; Voltaren and Myprodol, These decrease the blood supply to the kidneys and affect your stomach lining giving rise to ulcers. Especially avoid all forms of anti inflammatory medication when running races; disastrous complications can occur; especially renal failure.

Recommended time after having the flu to get back into running – at least 2-4 weeks.

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