The flu is a common virus, caused by the influenza virus. It typically affects the population within the winter months. Flu virus symptoms will typically get better on their own, but it can cause some people to be seriously unwell. In the UK, the flu jab is available to help protect people that may be at risk of flu complications.
What’s the flu?
The flu is a virus. It’s very contagious, meaning it spreads quickly from person to person. Influenza virus symptoms include a sore throat, runny or blocked nose and a cough. This is because the flu mainly affects the upper respiratory systems. Other flu symptoms include a high temperature (38C or higher), body aches, tiredness, headaches, feeling sick, tummy pain, loss of appetite or an upset stomach. In some cases, the flu can cause lower respiratory symptoms which can cause shortness of breath. Flu sickness is unpleasant, but typically gets better within a few days.
To treat the flu at home, make sure you get plenty of rest, keep warm, drink lots of water and take painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to treat any aches and pains, as well as helping to lower your temperature. Flu medication is also available to help treat influenza virus symptoms.
Causes of flu
There is only one causes of flu – the highly contagious influenza virus. When people who are infected with the flu cough or sneeze, droplets which contain the virus are sent into the air and can travel into other people’s nose or mouth who are nearby, affecting them. In some cases, the flu can be caught by touching an object or surface which has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
You can be contagious with the flu before you even develop flu virus symptoms, starting one day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after starting to feel unwell. People with weakened immune systems can be contagious for even longer.
Flu sickness can be extremely serious for anyone who is considered high-risk. Certain diseases which can put someone in the high-risk category include heart disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, chronic heart disease, obesity, sickle cell anaemia, liver disorders, HIV, AIDS, as well as anyone who is undergoing chemotherapy or any other treatments which weaken the immune system. The flu jab can protect against infection.
During the 20/21 flu season, there were very few cases in the UK due to social distancing measures and the impact of a national lockdown to prevent Covid-19. However, due to this, much of the population do not have any ‘top up’ antibodies for their body to create immunity from the virus. As a result of fewer people having built up natural immunity, it’s possible that we may see more hospitalisation or serious illness within the population, rather than a mild form of flu that the majority of people typically experience. The flu can be prevented by taking the flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine works by causing the immune system to produce antibodies which will fight off the flu virus should you become infected. Antibodies provide protection against flu and reduce the risk of getting the infection or becoming seriously unwell with influenza virus symptoms. Having the flu vaccine also stops you spreading the flu to other people who may be high-risk. The flu jab is the best protection against flu. It can take up to 2 weeks to work. The flu vaccine is free on the NHS to anyone who is high-risk, pregnant or works on the frontline. Contact your local GP for more information.
As with any vaccine, there are flu jab side effects. The majority of flu jab side effects are mild and last for a day, such as a sore arm, muscle aches and a slight raise in temperature. To help reduce discomfort, take painkillers and try to move the arm which you got the vaccine administered into regularly.
It’s important to take the flu vaccine each year as vaccinations from previous years aren’t likely to offer any protection against new strains of flu. The vaccine should be taken before the peak of flu season. In the UK, the peak is in November, meaning the flu jab should be taken in September for the best protection against influenza and flu symptoms.