Influenza is the name of the virus that causes flu and its symptoms. It is common, and around 15% of people develop it each year.
Influenza commonly causes a fever, sore throat, cough, sore muscles and feeling generally quite poorly. Symptoms tend to come on quite fast, as opposed to the gradual onset the common cold brings – different viruses are responsible for colds.
For most people, the flu will lead to some days spent in bed feeling rotten. For the elderly, young children, or people with other serious medical problems it can be serious, and a number of people die from the flu each year.
The flu virus typically hits in winter, which the flu vaccine is offered in the run-up to flu season every autumn. The virus can change a bit from year to year, making it hard for our immune systems to recognise it, so each time, we get severe symptoms as the immune system sets to work to protect us.
The flu jabs keep up with this ever-changing virus, and that’s why we need it every year.
Most cases of the flu can be treated at home with rest and good hydration. Most people get better over one or two weeks.
In a small number of cases, the flu can be serious. This is 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 everyone else, the flu jab is available to buy from your local pharmacy - they can give you the injection then and there.
The flu is very contagious. 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 well-hydrated with water and hydration salts and take paracetamol to help with fever and any pain from a sore throat or muscle aches.
If you have the flu, you are not fit to work. If your symptoms could be COVID-19 then you should follow government guidelines - stay at home, isolate and order a COVID-19 test within the first five days of symptoms.
Because the flu is so infectious, your doctor may choose to do a phone consultation. The doctor 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.
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