Influenza is the name of the virus that causes flu and its symptoms. It is common, and around 15-20% of people develop it each year.
Influenza commonly causes a fever, sore throat, cough, sore muscles, significant fatigue and feeling generally poorly. Symptoms tend to come on quite fast, as opposed to the gradual onset that happens with the common cold.
For most people, flu leads to some days spent in bed feeling pretty rotten and for the elderly, young children, or people with other serious medical problems it can be serious, and significant numbers of people die from flu each year.
The flu virus typically hits in winter, which is why the flu vaccine is offered in the run-up to flu season every autumn. The virus can change from year to year, making it hard for our immune systems to recognise it and so the flu jab is changed every year to keep up with this ever-changing virus. This is why we need it every year.
Most cases of the flu can be treated at home with rest and good hydration and most people get better over one or two weeks.
In a small number of cases, flu can be serious such as in children, the elderly, in pregnancy, if you have an underlying health condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes, or you have a lowered immune system. If you fall into any of these categories you are eligible for a free flu jab each year.
Healthcare workers and professional or at-home carers are also eligible for a free flu jab, to protect them from being laid low with the flu or passing it on to the more vulnerable. Your doctor will confirm if you are eligible and invite you for a jab. For everyone else, the flu jab is available to buy from your local pharmacy - they can give you the injection then and there.
Flu is very contagious as it can be passed in tiny saliva droplets that are in the air from someone coughing, sneezing or even just talking. It can also be passed on by touching any surfaces or other people’s hands that are contaminated by droplets, and then touching your mouth or face.
You are able to pass on the flu virus a couple of days before developing symptoms yourself, and you remain contagious while you have a fever and other symptoms.
Self-isolating whilst you have symptoms and regular hand washing will help others and lower the chance of passing on the flu. By wearing a face mask you also protect others and will lower the chance of you catching the flu in the first place.
To help with the symptoms of the flu you should rest, stay warm and well-hydrated with water and hydration salts, and take paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with fever and any pain from a sore throat or muscle aches.
Because flu is so infectious, your doctor may choose to do a phone consultation. They will ask about your symptoms and, if necessary, examine you. Depending on the possible diagnosis, blood tests, urine tests, or imaging (for example a chest X-ray) could be carried out, or you may be referred to a specialist department.
The doctor may also prescribe some medication to help with your symptoms. In a small number of people who have severe cases of the flu, hospital admission may be required.
If you have the flu, you are not fit to work. If your symptoms could be COVID-19 then you should follow current government guidelines in your area.
MYTH: Antibiotics are the only way to cure colds and flu.
FACT: Antibiotics are only suitable for the treatment of bacterial infections and do not work on viruses such as those that cause colds and flu. You will only be prescribed antibiotics if the cold turns into a secondary infection such as bronchitis.
MYTH: You catch a cold or flu from someone sneezing on you.
FACT: You’re more likely to be infected with a cold by touching a door handle, tea towel, or a handrail on the bus that’s been contaminated by the virus. Shaking hands also passes on germs. Once your fingers have been contaminated and you rub your eyes or nose, the virus will invade your body. However, with flu, people can become ill if they breathe in droplets containing the influenza virus that have been sneezed or coughed into the air.
MYTH: Feed a cold, starve a fever.
FACT: Never starve yourself! Nutritious hot drinks and soups (rather than solids) are what you need. Hot liquids increase the temperature in the nose and mouth and help kill viruses off more quickly.
MYTH: If you go out with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold.
FACT: It is now thought that you may actually be able to catch a cold by getting cold. When we shiver, our whole body becomes quite stressed, which depresses the immune system. We have bugs in our nose all the time, and when the immune system drops its guard, these seize their chance.
MYTH: You can catch the same cold twice.
FACT: There are around 200 cold viruses and, on average, we catch a couple each winter. However, once the cold ends, your body has built up immunity which will protect you from catching the same virus again.
MYTH: Resting will help banish a cold quickly.
FACT: Gentle exercise and fresh air are more likely to speed your recovery from a cold. But if you come down with flu, go to bed! Rest is essential to help you get better.
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