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What is flu?

Your guide to flu

06 Jan 2023 • 34 min read


Your guide to flu

We all know to look out for flu during winter. But what exactly is it?

Flu is an illness caused by the influenza virus. It’s a respiratory virus, which means it affects your nose, throat, and lungs.¹

Most otherwise healthy people with flu will begin to feel better within about a week, but it can be more dangerous for certain people.

Flu tends to affect people most often during the winter – and, with the current “flu season” happening, it’s important to know the signs and what to do.

In this article:

  • Spreading flu
  • Flu symptoms
  • Cold or flu?
  • Should I go to the doctor?
  • When to seek medical attention
  • Helping flu at home
  • Preventing the spread
  • Boosting immunity
  • Flu jab – who's eligible?
  • The final say

How does it spread?

Flu spreads through tiny droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets stay in the air for a while before landing on the surfaces around them.²

This means that you can catch flu by:

  • Breathing in these droplets
  • Close contact with someone who’s infected
  • Touching surfaces that are contaminated with flu germs

“The flu season is upon us and while it might seem inevitable that we are bound to get the sniffles, there are ways we can protect ourselves and our loved ones,” explains Dr Suba, our Director of Science, Health & Wellness.

“If you are feeling unwell with symptoms of a cold or flu, do stay at home and avoid close contact with those who might be more vulnerable in terms of their health.”

Flu symptoms

Common flu symptoms include: ³

  • A sudden high temperature
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • An aching body
  • Headaches
  • A dry cough
  • A sore throat
  • Nausea, sickness, and diarrhoea

It might be harder to tell some of these symptoms in young children and babies. If you think your child might have flu, look for the symptoms above plus:

  • Breathlessness or rapid breathing
  • Eating or drinking less, or not taking their usual feeds
  • Having fewer wet nappies than usual

Is it a cold or flu?

Cold and flu can have similar symptoms. However, flu symptoms tend to be more severe, last longer, and appear more suddenly. ³

  • A cold: Usually gives you a stuffy or runny nose, along with gradual symptoms like a cough, sneezes, and a sore throat. You might gradually develop a temperature or get head or body aches. Overall, you should still feel well enough to do most of your usual activities.
  • The flu: Can have any of the above, but symptoms like high temperature and head and body aches are much more noticeable. Symptoms will come on suddenly and will leave you feeling too exhausted to carry out your usual activities.

Should I go to the doctor if I have flu?

If you’re aged 18-64 and you’re otherwise healthy, you should recover from flu without urgent medical attention or booking a GP appointment.

Stay at home and:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Keep warm if you can

You should also avoid contact with those who you know have the flu.

The UK is currently experiencing high levels of flu cases and it’s having a greater impact than ever on the NHS. The final week of December 2022 showed 7 times more flu-related hospital admissions than a month earlier.⁵

Therefore, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re vaccinated against flu if you're eligible.

When to seek medical attention

Even though the NHS is facing increased pressure, you should still seek urgent medical care if you need it.

The NHS recommends you ask for an urgent GP appointment, call NHS 111, or get help from NHS 111 online if: ³

  • You’re worried about yours or your child’s flu symptoms
  • You’re aged 65 or over
  • You’re pregnant
  • You have a long-term medical health condition
  • You have a weakened or compromised immune system
  • You’re considered “high risk” for any other reason
  • Your symptoms do not improve after 7 days

Call 999 or go to A&E if: ³

  • You have difficulty breathing
  • You get sudden chest pain
  • You start coughing up a lot of blood

Helping flu symptoms at home

If you’re at home with flu, the quickest way to recover is to:

  • Get plenty of rest: Get plenty of sleep and don’t overexert yourself. Keep warm where possible.
  • Drink lots of fluids: This will help prevent you from becoming dehydrated.

You can take paracetamol, ibuprofen, or over-the-counter cold and flu medications as directed. However, it’s worth noting that some news outlets have reported a shortage in certain medicines due to high demand. ⁶

You can also get flu medication and advice from a pharmacy – but you should contact them in advance before going in person. Or, you can get them delivered or have someone collect them for you.

Preventing the spread

Flu can live on surfaces – including your hands – for up to 24 hours.³

Practicing good hygiene is one way you can help to reduce the spread of flu and protect yourself and others.

“It is really important to practice good hand hygiene and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Remember all the good habits (such as singing along to Happy Birthday) that we followed during the pandemic? You might also want to wear a face covering if you are planning to go out,” explains Dr Suba.

“And, if you are eligible for the flu vaccine, please do take it up.”

You can also clean any items you use frequently – like kitchen sides, TV remotes, door handles, or computer keyboards – to help prevent the spread of germs.

Boosting your immunity

“Lastly, prevention is better than cure, so make sure that you give yourself and your family the best boost by:

  • Staying active
  • Getting a good night's sleep
  • Reducing stress and high-risk habits (such as smoking and alcohol intake)
  • As well as having a balanced diet”

says Dr Suba.

“You can choose to supplement your diet with vitamin C and vitamin D if you so wish.”

Who’s eligible for the flu jab?

The NHS offers flu vaccines to those who are eligible every year. They’re a safe and effective way to help protect those at risk of flu and its complications.

You are eligible for the flu jab if you: ³

  • Are aged 50 and over (including those who will turn 50 by 31 March 2023)
  • Have certain health conditions
  • Are pregnant
  • Are in long-stay residential care
  • Are the main carer for an older or disabled person, or you receive a carers’ allowance
  • Live with someone who has a weakened immune system

Children can get the flu vaccine, too. A nasal spray version is offered for free to: ⁷ ⁸

  • Children aged 2 or 3 years on 31 August 2022 (born between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2020)
  • Children aged 2-17 years with long-term health conditions
  • All primary school children (Reception to Year 6)
  • Some secondary school aged children

Young children aged 6 months to 2 years who have a long-term health condition will be offered a flu vaccine injection.

The final say

Even if you’re staying at home, we can help provide advice on staying well and supporting your immunity.

As Dr Suba reminds us: “Our expert colleagues are around online or in stores to guide you through.”

Why not start a live video chat or book a free 15-minute wellness consultation with our expert advisors? We’re here 7 days a week for guidance on supporting your immunity and more.

Or, visit our Immunity Hub to learn the best ways to keep your immune system at its best through the flu season and beyond.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Before taking any supplements or minerals, it’s best to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients through your diet first.

It is important to always check with your doctor or midwife before taking any supplements while pregnant.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking any medications or under medical supervision, please consult a doctor or healthcare professional before use.

Last updated: 6 January 2023


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