flu vaccineWith winter fast approaching, the health headlines are filled with seasonal cold and flu stories. It is indeed the time of year when the flu virus strikes and for older people in particular being struck down by this winter bug can be especially debilitating.

Most commonly suffered between December and March when the weather is at its coldest and your immune system more vulnerable, you may have already encountered seasonal flu. Knowing exactly what seasonal flu is and what you can do to protect yourself is the key to making the festive season a pleasant one and not a pain-filled one.

What is seasonal flu?

Flu or influenza can strike at any time of the year but is more common during the winter months. Flu is essentially a virus that is extremely infectious and rather unpleasant, and whilst it is often mentioned in the same breath as the common cold, the two are very different. The common cold and seasonal flu are the result of different virus groups, and with the flu, symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headaches, coughs, aches and pains start suddenly and last for much longer.

There are three types of flu virus, A, B and C, although C is much more rare than the other two forms of the disease. Once you have been infected, flu virus symptoms tend to appear within two to three days, however most will start to feel relief within one week. Children, older people and individuals with weakened immune systems however many feel unwell for longer periods.

For elderly people and those with long-term health issues, exposure to flu can also lead to serious complications, including chest infections and worsening of existing long-term health conditions. In rare cases, flu can cause tonsillitis, ear infections, sinusitis, convulsions, meningitis and encephalitis. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to infection, and the flu has been linked to pregnancy complications.

As we mentioned the flu is extremely infectious and is passed on from the nose and mouth of the infected person via coughing and sneezing.

What can you do to protect yourself?

There are many ways that you can protect yourself from the flu virus. As the infection is passed from person to person, good hygiene can go a long way in preventing its spread. In addition to washing your hands on a regular basis with warm water and soap, you should also clean surfaces that you commonly come into contact with or share contact with – door handles, computer keyboards and telephones are common culprits when it comes to the spread of flu. Using tissues to guard your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, and disposing of those tissues immediately, is also vital to stopping its spread.

The flu vaccine is also an excellent route to prevention, and whilst it is available for free on the NHS to those aged 65 or over, children aged between 2 and 4 years old, pregnant women, children of school age (in years one and two only), those with long-term health conditions (children and adults suffering from chronic heart or lung disease are particularly susceptible to infection and more serious complications) and individuals with weaker immune systems, privately anyone can have access to the annual flu vaccine. Delivered to children as a nasal spray or to adults as a trivalent (three-component) and quadrivalent (four-component) shot, the flu vaccine triggers the development of protecting antibodies and is most effective when given between September and early November.