This assembly covers part of the primary PSHE curriculum, teaching children about the difference between the common cold and the flu, and how to avoid catching germs

Who’s had a cold since we broke up for Christmas? Who’s had somebody in their house really ill with flu or even pneumonia? What’s the difference between a cold and the flu anyway?

Well, a cold is caused by a virus, which is a microscopic organism, that attacks the parts of your body that do the breathing for you – your nose, throat, and all the bits of piping that carry air to and from your lungs, to keep up the oxygen supply to your blood. This virus makes you sneeze, cough, causes your nose to run and generally makes you feel a bit yucky. Luckily it’s what doctors call ‘self-limiting’, which means that your body cures itself after a while. All you need to do is look after yourself: drink plenty of water, and maybe orange juice, keep warm and try not to spread your cold to other people. That last bit’s difficult, because a cold is very contagious. It’s spread by people breathing in other people’s germs from coughs and sneezes, or by touching places where people have coughed and sneezed. So everyone needs to wash their hands all the time.

‘Flu’ is short for ‘influenza’ which is an Italian word that just means ‘influence’; when you have the flu you’re under the influence of a virus. It’s like a cold in some ways, only much more serious. It has all the symptoms of a cold but it also usually gives you a high temperature, affects your lungs more and makes you so ill that all you want to do is lie down and forget everything. As a general rule, if you still think you can go out, or go to school, or see your friends, or eat proper meals, it’s just a cold that you’ve got, because if you have flu you don’t want to do any of these things.

Flu is usually self-limiting, too. Because it’s caused by a virus there’s not much you can do about it except look after yourself and keep cosy in bed.

Of course if you already have something wrong with your breathing – if you’re asthmatic for example – then a cold or flu can be more serious, although people with things like asthma usually already know to be extra careful.

Jonah thought he had the flu.

He woke up and groaned. After a while he sat on the edge of his bed. Then he heard his mum calling.

“Jonah! Get yourself into gear. You’re due at school in an hour.”

Jonah groaned again, loudly enough for his mum to hear.

“Jonah!” his mum called again. “Stop groaning and start moving!”

Jonah groaned yet again, a little louder. Then he spoke in a quiet and feeble voice.

“Mum! I don’t feel very well. I don’t think I can go today!’

His mum came upstairs and stood in the doorway looking at him. She shook her head.

“Look at you! Gaze on it and weep!” she said. “What do you think’s up with you?”

“I think I’ve got flu, Mum,” said Jonah. “I really feel terrible. Everyone at school’s got flu. I must have caught it.”

“Oh really?” said Mum. “So you won’t want any breakfast then?”

Jonah groaned again, a little more quietly. Then he spoke again, in a feeble voice.

“Maybe just a bit of toast, Mum. I think I could manage that. A couple of rounds, with two eggs and maybe a bit of bacon. And are there any sausages?”

His mum shook her head.

“If you’ve got flu you don’t want all that. It’ll make you sick. Just a bit of warm milk for you I think, and a glass of orange juice.”

Jonah groaned again. He had his head in his hands, looking up at his mum between his fingers. Then he coughed.

“It’s this cough, Mum. I’ll be spreading germs everywhere if I go in.”

“Tell you what,” said Mum. “Get back into bed and I’ll bring you the hot milk.”

Jonah sighed. “I think I can manage to get to my computer, Mum,” he said. “I just need to….”

“No you don’t,” said his Mum. “If you’re ill you’re properly ill. Stay in bed, lights off. Curtains drawn. Back to sleep. No computer, no breakfast. If it’s real flu you won’t feel like doing anything at all.”

Jonah stretched his arms.

“Maybe I’ll just get up, Mum and then see how I feel.”

“OK, then,” said Mum. “So I won’t phone school to say you’re not coming?

Jonah didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Did you say you’d got sausages?”

Mum shook her head and went downstairs. Jonah heard the phone ring. He listened.

“Hi, Corinne,” he heard his Mum say. “Yes, I’ll be over to coffee later. No, Jonah will be going to school so I’ll be free. Yes he’s OK. Just a bit of ‘man flu’. Yes, I know. What are they like?”

Have you heard the expression ‘man flu’? It’s a way of saying that men aren’t as tough as women when it comes to putting up with illnesses and other problems. So perhaps if a man has a cold, he says he’s got flu. Do you think that’s true? Is it fair? Well, calm down everybody. We’re not going to argue about it here, but I bet you’ve got lots of things to say about it, and lots of opinions from your own families. Maybe you’ll find time to talk about it in class; perhaps after you’ve had time to discuss it at home first.

A prayer
Lord, be with all people who are ill and not at school with us today. Give them the strength to be cheerful in mind so that their bodies can mend themselves and they can return to us in good time and in good health and good spirits.

[Insert a special mention of anyone who is seriously ill or in hospital]

Be with all those who care for sick people, whether at home or in doctor’s surgeries, or in hospital. Give them wisdom, courage and understanding.

A thought
Listen to your body. You usually feel ill because it’s telling you something’s wrong.

Further information
There’s no proven cure for the common cold. Luckily the body takes care of it by itself, given time. There is, though, lots of research going on into the common cold – into finding ways of making the symptoms less severe for example. If you Google “common cold research uk” you’ll find some examples, such as the work going on at Cardiff University Common Cold Centre.

Flu is a more serious business, because people are killed by the flu. Older people, or those already experiencing breathing problems, can be at risk. Flu comes in epidemics that can move across the whole world. The most serious in recent history was the great flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 which killed a quarter of a million people in Britain and probably seventy to a hundred million worldwide – more people than were killed in World War I. More information on The Guardian site.

Bird flu
Birds can get flu. Recently a particularly lethal kind of bird flu has been killing birds, including domestic chickens, in the Far East. If it were to spread across the world, it would have a terrible effect on the populations of wild and domestic birds. The humans who look after the birds can catch it – but they have to be very close to them, handling them and breathing the dust from where the birds are kept. The good news is that a person with bird flu can’t pass it on to another human being. The bad news is that scientists fear the virus will mutate – change – so that humans can pass on bird flu to each other. It hasn’t happened yet, but great care is needed in keeping control of bird flu to prevent that change from happening.

All you need to know about bird flu is at the British Lung Foundation website.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh