Flu is caused by the influenza virus. Its symptoms include fever, shivering, a cough, sore throat, and aching muscles and joints (unlike the common cold, which usually gives you a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation, but comes on gradually and does not cause a fever or aches).
It spreads through small droplets of saliva coughed or sneezed by an infected person, and through direct contact with hands contaminated with the virus. Flu usually takes 2-3 days to develop fully, and generally lasts up to a week, during which time people usually feel unwell enough to stay in bed. Some symptoms – e.g. a cough or just feeling under the weather – can last for several weeks.
The people most at risk from the flu are elderly people (whose immune system is weaker), people at risk because of another medical condition (e.g. heart disease) and pregnant women.
Who should get vaccinated
The seasonal flu vaccine is offered free of charge to at-risk groups which are those who:
are aged 65 years or over
have a serious medical condition [details below]
live in a residential or nursing home
are the main carer of an older or disabled person
The serious medical conditions are:
chest complaint or breathing difficulties including, bronchitis, emphysema
lowered immunity due to disease or treatment (such as steroid medication or cancer treatment)
had a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
a neurological condition e.g. multiple sclerosis (MS) or cerebral palsy
a problem with, or removal of, your spleen e.g. sickle cell disease.
The flu vaccine is also recommended for:
children over the age of six months with a long-term health condition
The flu virus changes, so you need a flu jab every year
If you’re pregnant, the flu jab doesn’t harm your unborn baby. In fact it can protect your baby from flu for the first few months of life
The flu jab also protects against swine flu
The flu jab isn’t just for older people – pregnant women, those with health conditions, carers, and those with weakened immunity should all get the jab
The flu jab protects people of all ages
Flu isn’t just a cold, it can be a really serious illness
Stop the viruses spreading
Cold and flu viruses are spread by droplets that are sneezed or coughed out by an infected person. Other people can breathe in these droplets or transfer the droplets to their eyes or nose on their fingers.
Protect yourself and others against colds and flu by:
coughing or sneezing into a tissue
throwing a used tissue away as soon as possible
washing your hands as soon as possible
Remember “Catch it, bin it, kill it”
What to do if you catch flu
If you're generally fit and healthy, your body’s immune system can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu without the need to see a doctor. Look after yourself by resting, drinking non-alcoholic fluids to avoid dehydration and avoiding strenuous activity. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can relieve aches and pains.
Your local pharmacist can give you expert advice on the best medicines to treat your symptoms. The best way to prevent flu is by having a flu vaccination.
Consider visiting your GP if:
you're 65 years of age or over
you have a long-term medical condition – such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease or a neurological disease
you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you're having chemotherapy or have HIV