You can count on a few things to happen every year – Christmas and the flu season. The influenza virus is always around, but the colder months of the year make us all huddle in together and makes it easier for the virus to spread. From April to October, the number of cases of influenza rise dramatically in Australia. Sometimes when people get a cold they call it “the flu”, but influenza is more than just a nasty cold – Each year it can be responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 Australians.
There are a few safeguards we can put into place to help reduce the chances of getting the flu this flu season.
Firstly, what is the flu?
Influenza (the flu) is a highly contagious disease, usually prevented by vaccination and treated by managing symptoms. Spread by body fluids from infected people, symptoms include a runny nose and sore throat. Flu can affect anyone but is especially serious for babies and older people.
The flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are many different strains and they can change every year.
Flu is not the same as a common cold. The flu is a serious disease because it can lead to:
- ear infections
- heart and other organ damage
- brain inflammation and brain damage
The flu is easily spread from person to person. Most infections happen in winter.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Flu symptoms include:
- runny nose or sneezing
- cough or sore throat
- fever and chills
- body aches
- vomiting and diarrhoea (more common in children).
Symptoms usually start about 1 to 3 days after catching the flu and can last for a week or more. Some people can be mildly affected, while others can become seriously ill.
A common cold is not the same as the flu, although some of the symptoms are similar:
- runny nose or sneezing
- cough or sore throat.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads:
- when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and you breathe it in
- through direct contact with fluid from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes
- by touching a contaminated surface with the flu virus on it, and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
The flu spreads easily through families, workplaces, childcare centres and schools.
If you have the flu, you can be infectious to others from 24 hours before symptoms start until 1 week after the start of symptoms.
If you have the flu, you can help stop the disease spreading by:
- staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where they could spread the infection until you are well
- covering your coughs and sneezes
- washing your hands often.
Let’s start with the basics – one of the best ways of protecting yourself is the things we already know. Without becoming a “germaphobe”, it’s important to be aware of how we can pick up and transfer germs from one place to another – and how to break the cycle.
- You’ve been washing your hands since you were little, but it might be time to revisit your technique. Make sure you’re washing each part of your hands (backs, palms, in between your fingers) with plenty of soap and hot water for at least the length of time it takes to sing “happy birthday” under your breath.
- Use disposable tissues wherever possible and bin them straight away, and cover your whole mouth and nose whenever you cough or sneeze.
- Try to keep your hands away from your face as much as possible – including rubbing your nose, eyes and mouth.
- Clean surfaces regularly, especially when they’re high use such as door knobs, telephones and keyboards.
- Lastly, flu season is not the time to share – make sure you wash cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly before using them.Stay
There is a whole lot of misinformation that circulates about the flu vaccine – with some people saying it can give you the flu, or that it doesn’t work. The truth is, while it’s not perfect, the flu vaccine is one of the best defences we have to protect ourselves against the flu.
The flu vaccine is less effective than other vaccines because of the nature of influenza. The virus mutates and changes regularly, and there are a number of viruses responsible. In your flu vaccine is protection against the 3 or 4 most likely strains to be around based on evidence from past seasons and from other countries. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than nothing.
Not only does your flu vaccine help protect you from getting infected with an influenza virus, if you do get the virus your symptoms are likely to be less severe and go away quicker, with less risk of extra complications. That’s well worth the small investment in getting the vaccine.
Many people confuse a bad cold with the flu, but influenza can be much more serious, causing hospitalisation and even death in sometimes otherwise healthy people. If you come down with an illness, it’s important to do everything you can to avoid spreading it and to see a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve over a few days. Through this flu season, keep yourself safe and do your part to protect others from this nasty strain of viruses.