It’s icy cold, we’re fat from too many mince pies, the kids have just gone back to school and we’ve dispatched the last of the Christmas wrapping paper to the recycling box. Picking up a paper for the first time in a couple of weeks as life gets back to normal, we notice that headlines are full of dire warnings of imminent ‘flu epidemics or even pandemics.

Before we panic, let’s take a look at some hard facts. Lots of us may be coughing and colding, but that’s different to the ‘flu.

So when is a cough and a cold not a cold? When it’s the ‘flu. Flu symptoms are fever, aches, chills, tiredness, all of which can come on suddenly, and can pose a serious threat, mostly to those more at risk such as the elderly, the young and those with an impaired immune system. Coughs and colds, however, are usually just that – a cough and a cold, with the cough often worse at night, lasting a few days.

Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from the ‘flu (and coughs and colds, come to that? None of us want to be snivelling into our Lemsip if we can avoid it). The answer is, yes, plenty, and the good news in these financially stretched times is it really won’t cost you much more than a pocket tissue or a bar of soap. First of all, sneeze into a tissue. Colds and ‘flus are airborne diseases and if you sneeze into the air, you can infect up to 150 people – that’s the power of a single sneeze. Similarly, cover your mouth when you cough. Once you have mastered these simple practices, pass them onto your children, and to anyone who seems not to know about them. Finally, wash your hands. Alot. As Pocket Issue: Pandemics makes plain, this cuts your risk of succumbing to a number of infections dramatically.

Finally, some perspective: Flu pandemic prediction is an uncertain science at best – governments around the world have been stockpiling vaccines every year for decades to protect against possible outbreaks, only for most of us to make it through to Springtime unscathed when the pandemic fails to materialise. Chances are, 2009 will be no different in terms of the ‘flu. An Aids pandemic, on the other hand, has been rampaging across Africa for years, while Zimbabwe, as if its citizens didn’t have enough on their plate, are now in the grip of a cholera epidemic. We may moan about the UK and the NHS, but…

Got a cold? Get a pocket tissue