What is flu? Isn’t it just a heavy cold? How will I know I’ve got it?
Flu occurs every year, usually in the winter, which is why it’s sometimes called seasonal flu. It’s a highly infectious disease with symptoms that come on very quickly. Colds are much less serious and usually start gradually with a stuffy or runny nose and a sore throat. A bad bout of flu can be much worse than a heavy cold.
The most common symptoms of flu are:
- aches and pains in the joints and muscles
- extreme tiredness
Healthy individuals usually recover within two to seven days, but for some the disease can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death.
What causes flu?
Flu is caused by influenza viruses that infect the windpipe and lungs, and because it’s caused by viruses and not bacteria, antibiotics won’t treat it. If, however, there are complications from getting flu, antibiotics may be needed.
Dr Alan Dow explains the benefits of getting the flu vaccination.
How do you catch flu and can I avoid it?
When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they spread the flu virus in tiny droplets of saliva over a wide area. These droplets can then be breathed in by other people or they can be picked up by touching surfaces where the droplets have landed. You can prevent the spread of the virus by covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and you can wash your hands frequently or use hand gels to reduce the risk of picking up the virus.
But the best way to avoid catching and spreading flu is by having the vaccination before the flu season starts.
How do we protect against flu?
Flu is unpredictable. It is not possible to predict fully the strains that will circulate each year, and there is always a risk of a change in the virus. However, this does not happen very often. During the last ten years the vaccine has generally been a good match for the circulating strains.
The vaccine still provides the best protection available against an unpredictable virus that can cause severe illness.
The most likely viruses that will cause flu each year are identified in advance of the flu season in the UK and vaccines are then made to match them as closely as possible. The vaccines are given in the autumn ideally before flu starts circulating.
Flu vaccines protect against the main three or four types of flu virus most likely to be circulating.
What harm can flu do?
People sometimes think a bad cold is flu, but having flu can be much worse than a cold and you may need to stay in bed for a few days.
Some people are more susceptible to the effects of flu. For them, it can increase the risk of developing more serious illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia, or can make existing conditions worse. In the worst cases, flu can result in a stay in hospital, or even death.
Am I at increased risk from the effects of flu?
Flu can affect anyone but if you have a long-term health condition the effects of flu can make it worse even if the condition is well managed and you normally feel well. You should have the free flu vaccine if you are:
Further information is available on Public Health England's website here.