Flu, also known as influenza, is a respiratory infection caused by a number of influenza viruses. Flu is highly contagious and is normally spread by the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. The viruses pass through the air and enter your body through your nose or mouth.
You can also get flu if you touch somewhere that the virus landed and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. Flu is more common in winter because people spend more time in close contact with each other, so the viruses spread more easily. You can catch flu all year round, but it's especially common in winter, which is why it's also known as seasonal flu.
Adults are contagious 1-2 days before getting symptoms and up to 7 days after becoming ill. This means that you can spread the viruses before you even know you are infected.
Although unpleasant, flu is rarely life-threatening. It may on rare occasions be deadly for elderly people, newborn babies, and people with certain chronic illnesses.
Signs and Symptoms that you may have Flu Confusing flu with a cold are common. Flu and cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Flu and cold symptoms may both include a runny/blocked nose, sneezing, sore throat, and cough. Colds are usually milder than the flu.
To help you tell them apart, symptoms of flu come on suddenly and are worse than those of the common cold. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems leading to hospitalisations, but flu can have very serious associated complications. With flu, you typically start to feel bad quickly instead of over time.
These flu symptoms may include:
High temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
Tiredness and weakness
Body or muscle aches
Dry, chesty cough
Loss of appetite
There may also be gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea; these are much more common among children than adults.
Colds rarely cause a fever or headaches. The main differences are:
come on quickly
usually include fever, headaches and aching muscles
make you feel too unwell to continue your usual activities
come on gradually
mainly affect your nose and throat
are fairly mild, so you can still get around and are usually well enough to go to work
Normally, most flu symptoms get better after about 5 days. But sometimes they can last for a week or more. Even if your fever and aches are gone, you can still feel drained for a few weeks, having the feeling of tiredness and gloom.
It is worth noting that not every person with flu will have all of the symptoms; for instance, it is possible to have flu without fever.
It is very difficult to distinguish flu from other viral or bacterial causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone; therefore, there are tests available to diagnose flu.
Usually, you can manage flu symptoms yourself at home and there's no need to see a doctor. Most people with the flu recover within a week on their own without medical care.
People with mild cases of the flu should stay home and avoid contact with others, except to get medical care. If you get the flu, your health care provider may prescribe medicine to help your body fight the infection and lessen symptoms.
The best home remedy is to:
rest at home
drink plenty of water, broth and sports drinks to avoid dehydration
eat well balanced diet
you can also try a humidifier or saline spray to help with a stuffy nose, also
gargle with salt water for a sore throat
It is a good idea for people that live alone to tell a relative, friend, or neighbour that they have flu and make sure someone can check in on them. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower a high temperature and relieve aches if necessary. Some painkillers, such as aspirin, should not be given to children under 12.
You should consider seeing your doctor if:
you're at a higher risk of becoming more seriously ill
can’t stop vomiting
temperature remains high after 4-5 days
become short of breath and/or develop chest pain
If worried, a phone call to the doctor may be a better solution than making an appointment.
For some people, there can be severe complications. This is more likely in very young children, in the elderly, and for individuals with other longstanding illness that can undermine their immune system.
The risk of experiencing severe flu complications is higher for certain people, which include:
adults over 65
babies or young children
individuals with heart or cardiovascular disease
those with chest problems, such as asthma or bronchitis
individuals with kidney disease
people with diabetes
people taking steroids
individuals undergoing treatment for cancer
those with longstanding diseases that reduce immune system function
In these cases, your healthcare provider may suggest taking antiviral medication.
Some of the complications caused by influenza may include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Children may develop sinus problems and ear infections.
Antibiotics aren't prescribed for flu as they have no effect on viruses, although they may be prescribed if you develop a complication of flu, such as a bacterial chest infection.
When caring for people who have the flu:
Avoid being face to face with the sick person. If possible, it is best to spend the least amount of time in close contact with a sick person.
When holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face.
Wash your hands often and right way.
If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person. Wash after handling their tissues or laundry.
Preventing the Spread of Flu
The flu vaccine reduces the risk of catching flu, as well as spreading it to others. It is the best way to avoid catching flu. The vaccine helps your body to recognize influenza and fight it. Because the virus changes from year to year, you need a new vaccine before the start of each flu season in the fall. The vaccine cannot give you the flu. It can keep you from getting the illness or help keep your symptoms mild if you do come down with it.
Seasonal flu shot
As viruses adapt and change, so do those contained within the vaccines and what is included in them is based on international surveillance and scientists' calculations about which virus types and strains will circulate in a given year.
Protection begins about 2 weeks after receiving the vaccination.
Seasonal flu vaccinations should start in September or as soon as the vaccine is on hand, and continue throughout the flu season, into January, and beyond. This is because the timing and duration of influenza seasons are never the same. Flu outbreaks usually peak at around January, but they can happen as early as October and lasts till March.
Seasonal flu shots are not suitable for some people
Certain individuals should check with their doctor before deciding to have the flu vaccine, including:
Individuals with a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
Individuals who have had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination in the past.
Individuals who developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome within 6 weeks of receiving a flu vaccine.
Children under 6 months old.
Individuals experiencing a fever with a moderate-to-severe illness should wait until they recover before being vaccinated.
You can take some other simple steps to avoid getting flu, such as:
Trying not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth without washing your hands properly, because germs are spread that way.
Wash your hands often with soap and water. Or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
If you don’t have a tissue handy and you feel the need to cough or sneeze, the inside crook of your elbow is a great place to do it, so you don’t get germs on your hands.
Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.
If you get sick, you can keep other people from getting the flu by staying away from them.
If you are sick with flu-like illness, it is advised that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.
While infected with flu, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.