Influenza is a viral infection of your nose, throat and sometimes your lungs, but it can affect your whole body. It is a serious viral infection that carries the risk of hospitalisation or even death.
Influenza can sometimes be confused with the common cold, but having the flu is a lot more debilitating. For the vast majority of people, influenza will make you unable to work, play sport or take planned holidays. It can infect your family or leave them looking after you.
Special care is needed when children, the elderly or those with long-term health problems get influenza – in these people it can be serious and life-threatening.
The influenza virus is very infectious and is spread from person to person by the fine spray expelled from the nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. The strains of virus that cause influenza are always around us. They constantly change, so having had the flu before does not stop you getting it again.
You are likely to have a combination of symptoms including cough, sore throat, runny nose and eyes, headache, and usually high fever or chills, fatigue, aching muscles and joints and, in some people, breathing difficulties.
These symptoms can last for up to a week. It will probably be a few weeks before you feel like you've fully recovered from the flu.
Occasionally, the infection spreads to the lungs, causing bronchitis or pneumonia. This is more likely in the elderly, heavy smokers and people in poor health, eg, with asthma or other chest complaints.
The best thing you can do is rest at home until you feel better and the fever goes.
- Drink at least eight glasses of fluid (water, fruit juice, cordial, iceblocks) a day. This is very important when you are sweating and feverish. Avoid tea, coffee and alcohol — they can dry you out even more (fresh lemon juice mixed with honey, some hot water and a little olive oil, well shaken then sipped, can soothe a sore throat or dry cough).
- Eat only light food when you are hungry.
- Take medicine for fever and pain (do not give aspirin to children aged under 16 years; ask your pharmacist for product advice, eg, children's paracetamol, and follow instructions on the bottle carefully).
- Note for children under 6 years: most medicines for flu, coughs and colds contain ingredients which are not recommended for use in children under 6 years. Ask your pharmacist for product advice for young children.
Contact your doctor if you have not improved after four days, you are elderly or you have other long-term health problems. Young children with flu also need to be assessed by their doctor.
NOTE: To avoid spreading flu virus, it is recommended to phone your doctor or health clinic before turning up at the surgery, clinic or hospital.
Three simple ways to help prevent spread of flu
- Get the flu vaccine.
- Wash your hands.
- Stay away from others when you are sick; keep your distance from others who are sick.
The influenza vaccine helps protect against influenza. Each year an influenza vaccine is made available in the autumn to cover the most common flu strains expected to be circulating for that season.
Read more about influenza vaccination
- Wash your hands often, preferably with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, then dry them, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
- Wash your hands, eg, before preparing food or eating, after going to the toilet, after tending to sick people
- Wash your hands after returning from the supermarket or communal areas like malls.
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, after wiping children’s noses, or if you have handled soiled tissues.
- Try not to touch your nose, mouth, ears or eyes unnecessarily, as the flu virus can enter the body through these areas.
- Clean surfaces around the house regularly, eg, door handles, telephone, bathroom surfaces – more often if someone in the household has symptoms.
- Don’t share glasses, drink bottles or cutlery, and wash dishes thoroughly.
- Try to ‘contain’ a sneeze or cough by covering your mouth and nose with a disposable tissue.
- Disposable tissues should be also used for blowing the nose.
- Used tissues should be disposed of straightaway in a plastic bag or lined bin with a lid (preferably one you don’t need to touch, such as a pedal bin).
Keeping your distance
- If someone has symptoms such as sneezing and coughing, try to keep one metre (or more) away from them.
- Try to avoid being among large groups of people or in crowded places (particularly if flu is known to be circulating at the time).
- If you, a child or family member is unwell with suspected flu, try to prevent the spread by keeping them at home — and away from any visitors.
- Try to keep other members of the household separate from an unwell family member, eg, have them sleep in a separate room if possible.