We often blame a bout of illness on influenza, or ‘the flu’, when we’re actually suffering from a common cold or the effects of a different virus. Flu usually has a greater effect on our health, though. It’s good to know the difference between these illnesses and protect yourself, as well other people, against infectious symptoms.

What is flu, how do you catch it?

Flu is a viral illness affecting the lungs and upper airways. It usually lasts two to three weeks – anything less is more likely to be a very heavy, short term, common cold – and symptoms tend to appear suddenly.

People with flu can spread the illness easily, as the infectious period starts one day before symptoms show. The virus is usually spread in the small droplets of saliva coughed or sneezed into the atmosphere by an infected person. Direct contact with contaminated hands can also pass the virus on to a healthy person. After five days of flu-like symptoms, risk of spreading the virus reduces.

Symptoms of flu – what are they?

Flu strikes suddenly. One day, you’re feeling fine – the next, you may have a high temperature, aches, pains and nausea that you cannot explain. You may also experience a cough or loss of appetite which could last for two or three weeks.

The stages of flu

1-2 days

Infectious, but no symptoms.

3-5 days

Full symptoms; fever that comes on quickly; sweating; muscle aches and general pains; fatigue and difficulty sleeping; chesty cough and sneezing; blocked nose.

6-8 days

Tiredness; dry chesty cough; runny nose; difficulty sleeping

9-21 days

Tiredness and chesty cough.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone can catch flu. Young children, older persons and people with lowered immune systems will remain infectious for longer. They also stand a greater risk of catching the virus, so if you think you’re suffering – try to avoid them.

What’s the best treatment?

Antibiotics are not a treatment for flu because they have no impact on the virus itself. They can only help with complications, such as a chest infection. If you think you have flu, these are some of the best ways to treat the symptoms. We recommend you speak to your GP if the symptoms are long-lasting or causing you great concern.

  • Rest, because your body will be using a lot of energy to fight the infection.
  • Keep warm and make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
  • Paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen may help lower a high temperature, relieve headaches and muscle pain. You should consult your GP first, if you are already taking these or any other medicines.
  • If you have a reduced appetite, try to eat foods that are light on your stomach such as fruit and vegetables.
  • Drinking hot water with lemon, ginger and honey may naturally help soothe a chesty cough.

Fast facts

  • Flu vaccines are available on the NHS, from September to November, for those particularly at risk. The vaccine is highly effective against the common strains of influenza virus – but it won't prevent a common cold.
  • You can reduce the chances of spreading flu by remembering ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it!' If you have the early symptoms of flu, then cover a sneeze, dispose of used tissues, and wash your hands thoroughly.

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