What is flu?

Influenza, commonly known as flu, is a common viral infection rife in the UK in the winter months and spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing. Flu is not the same as the common cold: symptoms are usually more intense and occur more suddenly than mild cold symptoms - and they also tend to last longer.

Flu symptoms can include a high temperature upwards of 38C, tiredness and muscle weakness, headache, aches and pains and a dry or chesty cough. Although most people should start to feel better after a week, flu can be more dangerous for groups such as the elderly, small children and pregnant women.

There are three types of flu viruses - A, B and C, however, only types A and B affect humans. Type B generally causes milder symptoms than type A, and is more commonly seen in children. With flu estimated to cause between 3-5 million cases of severe illness and 250,000 – 500,000 deaths annually across the world (according to the WHO), it is important to understand how the virus may affect you and how you can protect yourself this flu season.

The flu vaccine

The flu vaccine is available to help prevent your body from contracting flu and is highly recommended for certain age groups. The vaccine is available free on the NHS for: anyone over the age of 65, pregnant women, people suffering from obesity, people with certain underlying health conditions and anyone with a weakened immune system.

The vaccine is made up of a combination of subcategories of flu types A and B. Due to the continuous evolution of the flu virus, these subcategories are reviewed regularly by the WHO to ensure the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Most people are healthy enough to fight off flu without experiencing any serious symptoms, which is why the vaccine is only available on the NHS to high-risk patients. Generally, flu can be managed by taking medications such as paracetamol in order to keep temperatures down and aches and pains under control. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

Follow the correct advice, and most people start to feel better after one week. In most cases, visiting the doctor is unnecessary and actually risks spreading the virus further. Treatments such as antibiotics have no effect on the flu virus and therefore doctors can do little more than recommend standard over-the-counter medications.

Effectiveness of the flu vaccine

Although the efficiency of the flu vaccine changes every year based on the adaptation of each new strain of the virus, it has been estimated that the vaccine was 29% effective against influenza A and 46% effective against influenza B during the 2014 flu season. These figures are slightly lower than those seen in previous years.

Professor Paul Cosford, Public Health England’s Director for Health Protection, said:

“Whilst it’s not possible to fully predict the strains that will circulate in any given season, flu vaccination remains the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk group. These include older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition, even one that is well managed.”

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