Dr Norman Swan: The dreaded flu season is nearly upon us…
And while it’s more common to catch the flu in colder months, the flu can hit any time of the year.
This year there’s already been just over 17,000 reported cases with the majority in QLD and NSW. This is almost six times more than at the same time last year.
So what is flu and how does it differ from the common cold?
Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that infects the upper airways and lungs.
Common symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Dry cough
- Muscle and joint pain, and
Children may have:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting.
This chart compares symptoms of cold and flu – the major difference being the severity of symptoms and if you have a cold you’re less likely to have a fever.
A person with the flu may be infectious for 24 hours before they’re aware they have it, and then 3 to 5 days after the onset of symptoms, a child up to a week.
When you know you have the flu your best option is to rest and take time off work, as the flu is spread from person to person by:
- A sneeze, or a cough
- Talking to someone in close proximity
- Or if you touch contaminated surfaces and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.
- As the flu is a virus not a bacterial infection, antibiotics won’t help and should not be prescribed.
The best treatment is:
- Bed rest
- Drinking plenty of water
- Over the counter medications such as simple pain-relievers may help to reduce symptoms but best to talk to your pharmacist or GP as to what’s best for you.
You should start to feel well again in about a week, but in some cases, more serious illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis can develop. And if you have an existing medical condition, the flu may make it worse so check with your GP.
Other reasons to seek urgent medical attention include:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- sudden dizziness
- severe vomiting
- fever with a rash.
It’s always better to try to prevent catching the flu in the first place. So what are the precautions you can take?
Get yourself vaccinated – it’s the best way to stay safe from the flu.
And if you’re over 65, or under 5, have a chronic illness, are pregnant, or are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person you’re at higher risk so it’s even more important you’re vaccinated.
A flu shot is the best way to reduce your risk as it helps you to build immunity to the virus.
And you’ll need one every year as its effects wear off after 3 to 4 months and there’s different flu strains each year.
Check with you GP or pharmacy to find out when this year’s flu vaccine is available.