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How to avoid, diagnose and treat the flu
What is influenza? It’s a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that get into your nose, throat and lungs. Most flu just makes you feel rotten, but it isn’t usually dangerous unless you’re fragile or already poorly when, in rare cases, it can kill.
Important note about flu and antibiotics
There’s no point taking antibiotics for the flu or a cold. They won’t work, and these days doctors are being strongly encouraged to refuse antibiotics to people who demand them when there’s no good reason.
A lot of people confuse a nasty common cold with the flu. Mild flu can feel very like a bad cold.
- Fever – although not all flu comes with a fever
- Sore throat
- Runny or blocked nose
- Aching muscles and headaches
- Serious fatigue
- Occasionally, and usually in children, sickness and the runs
How does flu spread?
- In droplets and mist when sufferers sneeze and cough
- From surfaces and objects touched by poeople with flu
- You can pass flu on to others before you get any symptoms yourself, a day before the symptoms develop and as much as a week after actually getting ill
When does flu get serious?
The seriousness of the illness depends on several key things:
- Which flu viruses are around at the time
- How much flu vaccine is available, and when
- How many people get vaccinated
- How well the vaccine works on that particular flu virus
Are you at extra risk?
You might be at risk of getting more poorly than average with the flu if:
- You’re an older person or young child / baby
- You are pregnant
- You have asthma, diabetes or heart disease
- Your immune system isn’t up to scratch for any reason
What about complications?
If you’re particularly vulnerable or catch an especially nasty case of flu, you might experience:
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Ear and sinus infection
- Serious dehydration
- If you already have congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes, you might find these conditions get worse
About seasonal flu jabs and spray vaccinations
The best way to prevent the flu is a seasonal injection or nasal spray vaccination. Flu vaccines can either protect you against three or four different types of flu virus, depending on which strains are around at the time.
- Annual flu vaccination is usually available for October onwards
- Seasonal flu can break out as early as October
- Cases usually peak in January, occasionally later
- It takes around 2 weeks for the vaccine to kick in
Do you need flu immunisation?
The NHS offers free annual flu jabs or nasal vaccinations to all at-risk grown-ups over 18 and kids aged between six months and two years. If you’re healthy and fit, the flu should go away within a week on its own. But if you’re especially vulnerable, it makes sense to get immunised.
- If you’re older than 65
- If you’re pregnant
- If you have an underlying health condition, whatever your age, especially if it’s chronic heart or respiratory disease
- If your immune system is weak or compromised
Studies reveal vaccination helps prevent people from catching flu. But it won’t stop every flu virus, since they change as time goes by. While there’s no guarantee you’ll stay free of the flu altogether, the vaccine means any symptoms are usually less serious if you do happen to catch it.
Are there any side effects?
Serious side effects are extremely rare. At most you might notice a slight temperature, aching muscles and soreness at the site of the injection. If you’ve had an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine before, avoid it. If you experience any of the following, which suggest anaphylaxis, treat is as a medical emergency. If you don’t already have an adrenaline auto-injector to hand, call 999.
- Itching or a raised red rash
- Swollen eyes, lips, hands and feet, throat, mouth or tongue
- Faintness or difficulty breathing
- Abdominal pain
- Collapse and unconsciousness
When is it best NOT to get a flu jab?
Some people suffer allergies that make the flu jab and nasal spray dangerous. If in doubt, ask your GP.