As the dreaded winter chill really starts to set in, we're well into that time of year when those Uggs and scarves come of your closet and the sniffles begin. But is it simply a cold? Here’s why it’s important to know when your coughs and sneezes are more than just a cold.
What is flu?
Commonly known as the flu, influenza is a contagious viral infection affecting the respiratory system - the nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms of flu may vary and can be mild or severe. These may include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Dry/chesty cough
- Sore throat
- High fever (38℃ or above)
- Body aches and pains
- Headache and congestion
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach aches, nausea & vomiting
The flu circulates during winter, and typically peaks around December and January - causing many people to fall ill over this period.
How can I tell if it’s a cold or flu?
Symptoms for both colds and flu can be similar, although the flu is generally more severe. Cold symptoms tend to appear gradually, affect mostly the nose and throat, and people usually feel well enough to carry on their day as normal. Flu symptoms come on suddenly, affect more than the nose and throat, and can make you feel too exhausted and unwell to get through a normal day such as going to work.
Flu symptoms can often be self-treated and should subside in about a week or two, although some people are more prone to severe flu and it may cause more serious complications.
The flu vaccine - how does it work?
The flu vaccine works by stimulating the production of antibodies (proteins that fight off germs) in your immune system to attack the flu virus, which is deactivated before the vaccine is produced. These antibodies will then recognise the virus if you are infected, and will be produced by your immune system immediately if you have been vaccinated.
The vaccine usually takes between 10 to 14 days to become fully effective, and it's advised to have one every year. This is because different strains of the flu virus may circulate each year (which means the vaccine can also change), and your immune system’s antibody production against flu declines over time.
Should I get the flu vaccine?
Some groups of people are more vulnerable to severe illness, other complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia, or even death. The NHS offers a free vaccination to those more at risk of developing serious complications caused by flu. These groups include:
- Those aged 65 or over
- Pregnant women
- People with certain medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes
- Residential or nursing home patients
- The main carer of an elderly or disabled person who is at risk if you fall ill
- Children in at-risk groups (injection for 6 months to 2 years old, nasal spray for 2-17 years old)
- Frontline health or social care workers
Since these groups of people are at higher risk of exposure to flu or prone to more serious complications, it is advised to have the flu vaccination every year. It is not advised to have the flu vaccine if you have previously had an allergic reaction to it or are allergic to any of its ingredients. You should take precautions and seek advice from your GP if you have an egg allergy (as some flu vaccines contain egg content).
Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you think you may be eligible for a free NHS flu vaccination.
Can I have a flu shot if I have a cold?
If you have a minor illness such as a cold and have no fever, it’s fine to have a flu vaccination, though if you do have a fever it’s best to wait until you have recovered before having the vaccination. This is because your immune system will already be working hard to fight the infection causing a fever, so not only may your recovery take longer, but your immune system may not be able to produce sufficient antibodies against the flu virus.
Can I still catch flu if I've had the vaccine?
The vaccine can’t cause the flu, as it doesn’t contain a live virus. You may experience some temporary side effects after a vaccination for a day or two, such as a few aches and pains, a slight temperature, or a sore arm.
Some people confuse the side effects from the jab - or the fact that they already have a cold - and mistakenly think that the jab could lead to actual flu.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the vaccine only protects against three or four strains of flu, which are the ones most likely to be circulating that season. You may catch another strain, or you also may catch another illness with very similar symptoms to the flu.
When can I get it and where?
The vaccination is usually available to have from around mid-September, and it’s best to have it before the flu virus usually peaks in December, although you can still have the vaccine later in the winter.
Your GP surgery or local pharmacy will usually advertise when it becomes available, and may even get in touch with you if you are eligible for a free NHS vaccination. If you aren’t eligible for a free one, you can still pay for one privately, often through your local pharmacy. Pharmacies may also be able to offer a walk-in service so you don’t have to wait for an appointment.
Flu prevention measures
The best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccination, although following good hygiene habits can help to protect you against flu and prevent spread to others:
- Avoid close contact with those already ill
- Try to avoid public places such as work or school if you are already ill
- Cover your mouth & nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing
- Wash your hands regularly
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as this is where the flu virus can enter your body once you have touched something contaminated
- Stay warm and drink plenty of fluids
So, now you know about flu, you should get it too!
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