Raging fever, aching muscles and a thumping headache… the symptoms are all too common at a time of year when thousands of Britons are struck down by the flu.
Since October, more than 3,800 people have been admitted to hospital with the influenza virus, and 85 people have died of it so far this winter. The latest victim was Bethany Walker, from Applecross in Scotland, an 18-year-old student who died last week after her flu turned into pneumonia.
The tragedy follows the spread of ‘Australian flu’, a particularly nasty strain of the virus which has gripped the UK after affecting 170,000 people on the other side of the world.
Bethany Walker, from Applecross in Scotland, died last week after her dose of the flu worsened and developed into pneumonia
And the situation is worsening: this week the number of flu cases presenting to GPs in England rose by 78 per cent.
So how can you avoid catching the flu? Is it too late to get the vaccine? And what medication should you be taking? In our comprehensive cut-out-and-keep guide, we answer all your flu-related questions.
What are the signs you’re getting the flu?
If you’ve caught the flu, you’ll know pretty quickly. ‘People often talk about a bad cold as “a touch of the flu,”’ says Professor Robert Dingwall, a public health specialist at Nottingham Trent University. ‘But this is very different. You will feel seriously unwell.’
Common symptoms include a high temperature, runny nose and cough, as well as pains and aches all over the body – rather than solely in your chest and head.
‘You’ll get a very high fever that causes sweating and shaking, widespread muscle pains, diarrhoea and nausea, a nasty cough and sore throat,’ explains Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a public health specialist at Nottingham Trent University said people with the flu become very ill with a high temperature, runny nose and a cough as well as aches and pains all over the body rather than solely in the head and chest
How do you catch it?
The most common way of catching the virus is person-to-person contact, most often in the form of germs spread via coughs and sneezes, which can live on the hands for 24 hours.
People with the flu can also spread it to others as far as six feet away, via droplets which enter the air when they cough, sneeze or talk.
These droplets land in the mouths or noses of others nearby or are inhaled directly into the lungs.
But Prof Dingwall says germs can also survive on hard surfaces – from train doors to escalator rails and shop counters – for 20 to 30 minutes. If you touch one of these and then touch your mouth or nose, you risk contracting the virus.
What’s The difference between a cold and flu?
The difference between influenza and the common cold (also caused by a virus, most likely the rhinovirus, responsible for 50 per cent of colds) is one of severity.
‘With a bad cold, you might expect your temperature to rise by a few tenths of a degree, but with the flu it could be a couple of degrees,’ explains Prof Dingwall. ‘You’ll feel a lot worse. Rather than being confined to your head and chest, your whole body will feel under attack.’
Another difference is that the flu takes hold quickly, within a few hours, while symptoms of a cold can take longer to appear.
Why is the ‘Aussie flu’ outbreak so bad?
Despite the name, Australia isn’t actually responsible for the latest strain of flu – every year the virus mutates and it just happens that Australia experienced the newest version first.
Over there, it sparked the worst outbreak on record, with some hospitals reporting standing room only after being swamped by cases. Experts have since discovered ‘Japanese flu’, another strain, which has recently swept across Ireland.
‘Every year flu viruses change proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system, making them more deadly – so resistance is a bit more limited,’ explains Prof Dingwall. ‘This year it isn’t so bad as to threaten civilisation, but it is going to give us a bad winter.’
According to experts it is still not too late to get the vaccination against the flu
Who is most at risk?
As with any strain of the flu, pregnant women, young children and those aged over 65 face the highest risk.
Those with long-term medical conditions – such as diabetes, or heart, lung, kidney or neurological diseases – are also in this category, as are those with weakened immune systems, such as chemotherapy patients.
Even if you’ve had the flu in the past, you’re still at risk – although there is some evidence that resistance may improve if you’ve previously caught a similar virus.
How can I prevent it?
The most obvious prevention method is the flu jab, which contains small, deactivated and purified strains of the virus itself (normally grown in hens’ eggs), and works by stimulating your body’s immune system to make antibodies – proteins which fight off germs – to attack it.
If you’re exposed to influenza after having the vaccine, your immune system will recognise the virus and immediately produce antibodies to fight it.
Although it’s impossible to protect yourself completely, Prof Dingwall says you can reduce your chances of catching or spreading flu by washing your hands often with warm soapy water. ‘If you’ve been out shopping or commuted into work, wash your hands afterwards,’ he cautions.
Use tissues rather than handkerchiefs when you cough or sneeze, and bin them as quickly as possible, rather than keeping them in your pocket where germs can survive.
Elderly people are among the most at risk from the flu outbreak according to doctors
Is it too late to get the vaccine?
‘The vaccine is still worth getting, even at this stage of the winter,’ says Prof Dingwall. ‘This applies particularly if you’re in one of the vulnerable groups.’
The official NHS advice is to get the vaccine before the end of March. It can take ten to 14 days for your immunity to build up after having the jab, so it’s worth getting it sooner rather than later.
GPs or pharmacies may offer the flu vaccine for free, or you can get it privately for as little as £20. Experts stress that there is no absolutely no risk of catching flu from the vaccine itself – you may get a sore arm and a slight temperature, but there is no live virus in the injection.
Should I keep going into work?
Offices are breeding grounds for viruses, so, if you think you’ve got the flu, taking a sick day is positively encouraged. This is essential if you work in a job with sick or vulnerable people, such as a hospital or nursing home. ‘You’re actually at your most infectious in the four days before the symptoms take hold,’ explains Prof Dingwall. ‘It’s best to stay at home and tuck yourself up in bed. If you’re struggling to get into work every day, you’re likely to exhaust yourself – and it will take you longer to get over it.’
Going into work with a dose of the flu is not a good idea as offices are a breeding ground for viruses and the effort of commuting on a daily basis will likely increase the recovery period
Should I go to the doctor or A&E?
There’s no need to go to your GP – or to hospital – unless your symptoms are particularly bad or don’t show signs of improving after seven days.
‘If your temperature keeps rising or your joint paint or headache is getting unbearable, it might be time to seek medical assistance, particularly if you’re in one of the at-risk groups,’ Prof Dingwall says.
‘But call 111 [the NHS non-emergency helpline] or the receptionist at your GP before dragging yourself in. They’ll be able to advise you over the phone. Pharmacists can also help – if you can’t get to one yourself, send someone in your place.’
Experts only advise calling 999 or going to A&E if you develop sudden chest pain, have difficulty breathing or start coughing up blood – which may be signs of pneumonia or chest infection.
Staying warm and drinking plenty of water is the best way of recovering from the flu
What medication should I be taking?
Doctors don’t recommend antibiotics because they won’t relieve your symptoms or speed up recovery. Instead, take what you would normally use for pain relief: paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen can all be effective.
Decongestant syrups, sprays or lozenges, including those containing menthol, may alleviate symptoms in your head, nose and chest, but won’t do much to ease those aching limbs.
‘People in vulnerable groups may be prescribed Tamiflu – prescription-only tablets which fight the virus directly – but this is only effective in the first 48 hours,’ Prof Dingwall explains. ‘Most people simply have to wait it out. It’s not pleasant but it will go away eventually.’
Are there any home remedies?
For a speedy recovery, the most effective remedy is taking care of yourself at home. Experts recommend resting, staying warm and drinking plenty of water to replenish fluids which may be lost through sweating.
Caffeine and alcohol – despite the old wives’ tales about hot toddies – are best avoided, as they’ll stop you from sleeping.
And while they won’t cure the flu, there are plenty of things you can try to soothe your symptoms: from gargling salt water (to ease a sore throat) to having a steamy shower (to clear the nasal passages) and drinking hot, citrusy drinks (to relieve stuffiness in the head).
How long does flu last?
A bout of the flu can knock a fit, healthy adult out of action for up to two weeks. The virus itself incubates for four days, then the symptoms develop – and you stop being infectious around five days after these take hold.
Don’t worry if you feel tired for a few weeks afterwards – this is entirely normal.
And there is one upside: experts reckon adults only catch flu twice a decade, so you’re over the worst for a while.