As flu season arrives, many people are understandably worried about getting ill. Recent statistics show the increased strain on the NHS with 3,746 patients a day with flu. But what is the difference between the various strains of flu, how can we prevent it and how should we respond if we fall ill with it?
Flu is seasonal and each year a new strain will begin to spread.
Flu is a highly infectious disease and symptoms usually appear very quickly. While colds can make you feel miserable, they are considerably less serious. They usually start gradually with a runny nose and sore throat. Flu however, is likely to flatten you completely, causing fever, chills, headache, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, and extreme tiredness.
Healthy individuals usually recover within two to seven days, but it can be very serious, in some cases leading to hospitalisation, permanent disability and even fatality!
What causes flu?
Influenza viruses affecting your respiratory system cause flu. Unlike bacterial infections, you cannot treat viruses with antibiotics. In some cases, however, you may receive a prescription for antibiotics if there are additional opportunist bacteria that cause complications and need treating.
How do you catch flu and can I avoid it?
Flu virus is spread liberally in tiny droplets of saliva released when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.
These droplets are then inhaled by other people or they are infected by touching surfaces where the droplets have landed. The virus can survive on surfaces for many hours.
To prevent the spread of the virus ensure that you cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your face in a public environment such as a bus or train, use hand gels while out and wash your hands regularly.
However, the best way to protect yourself against flu is by having a flu vaccination before flu season commences.
One of the ways to prevent getting the flu is the flu jab.
Each year teams of experts try and predict the most likely viruses to affect us and match them into the vaccine as closely as possible.
Flu is unpredictable and there is always a risk of a change in the virus. A 2022 study showed that flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of severe life-threatening influenza by 75%.
Only the child’s nasal flu vaccine includes cover for Japanese flu – and this is okay, as it is predominantly children that get this strain.
Immunity takes a couple of weeks to build up, so it is important to get the vaccine before the beginning of flu season. While it is not a live vaccine and should not make you feel ill, some people have a low-grade fever and aching arm for a couple of days after the vaccination.
The Pneumonia vaccine
The pneumococcal vaccine protects against serious and potentially fatal pneumococcal infections. It’s also known as the pneumonia vaccine. Pneumococcal infections are caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae and can lead to pneumonia, septicaemia (a kind of blood poisoning) and meningitis.
Who should get the vaccine?
If someone has additional medical conditions, is pregnant, is the sole carer for someone dependent upon them, or a care worker – they should try and get the free jab. Flu is serious and will put you out of action if you get it.
Anyone can pay for it and can just make an appointment with their Pharmacist.
However, you are entitled to a free flu vaccine if you are pregnant or have one of the following long-term conditions:
- a heart problem
- a chest complaint or breathing difficulties, including bronchitis, emphysema or severe asthma
- kidney disease
- low immunity due to disease or treatment (such as steroid medication or cancer treatment)
- liver disease
- had a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
- a neurological condition, e.g. multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy or learning disability
- a problem with your spleen, e.g. sickle cell disease, or you have had your spleen removed
- are seriously overweight (BMI of 40 and above).
What to do if you suspect you have flu:
There is no need to visit your GP if you are suffering from flu as there is nothing they can do to help you fight it. However, if you develop complications or are seriously worried please phone the surgery and get additional medical advice.
The key advice to recover as quickly as possible is:
- Rest and sleep
- Keep warm
- take paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat aches and pains which will also lower your temperature.
- Drink plenty of water and avoid dehydration (urine should be pale yellow or clear)
Pharmacists can give treatment advice and recommend flu remedies that can help you to feel better.