Raging fever, aching muscles and a thumping headache... the symptoms are all too common at a time of year when thousands of Britons are struck down by the flu.
Since October, more than 3,800 people have been admitted to hospital with the influenza virus, and 85 people have died of it so far this winter. The latest victim was Bethany Walker, from Applecross in Scotland, an 18-year-old student who died last week after her flu turned into pneumonia.
The tragedy follows the spread of ‘Australian flu’, a particularly nasty strain of the virus which has gripped the UK after affecting 170,000 people on the other side of the world.
Bethany Walker, from Applecross in Scotland, died last week after her dose of the flu worsened and developed into pneumonia
And the situation is worsening: this week the number of flu cases presenting to GPs in England rose by 78 per cent.
So how can you avoid catching the flu? Is it too late to get the vaccine? And what medication should you be taking? In our comprehensive cut-out-and-keep guide, we answer all your flu-related questions.
What are the signs you’re getting the flu?
If you’ve caught the flu, you’ll know pretty quickly. ‘People often talk about a bad cold as “a touch of the flu,”’ says Professor Robert Dingwall, a public health specialist at Nottingham Trent University. ‘But this is very different. You will feel seriously unwell.’
Common symptoms include a high temperature, runny nose and cough, as well as pains and aches all over the body – rather than solely in your chest and head.
‘You’ll get a very high fever that causes sweating and shaking, widespread muscle pains, diarrhoea and nausea, a nasty cough and sore throat,’ explains Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a public health specialist at Nottingham Trent University said people with the flu become very ill with a high temperature, runny nose and a cough as well as aches and pains all over the body rather than solely in the head and chest
How do you catch it?
The most common way of catching the virus is person-to-person contact, most often in the form of germs spread via coughs and sneezes, which can live on the hands for 24 hours.
People with the flu can also spread it to others as far as six feet away, via droplets which enter the air when they cough, sneeze or talk.
These droplets land in the mouths or noses of others nearby or are inhaled directly into the lungs.
But Prof Dingwall says germs can also survive on hard surfaces – from train doors to escalator rails and shop counters – for 20 to 30 minutes. If you touch one of these and then touch your mouth or nose, you risk contracting the virus.
What’s The difference between a cold and flu?
The difference between influenza and the common cold (also caused by a virus, most likely the rhinovirus, responsible for 50 per cent of colds) is one of severity.
‘With a bad cold, you might expect your temperature to rise by a few tenths of a degree, but with the flu it could be a couple of degrees,’ explains Prof Dingwall. ‘You’ll feel a lot worse. Rather than being confined to your head and chest, your whole body will feel under attack.’
Another difference is that the flu takes hold quickly, within a few hours, while symptoms of a cold can take longer to appear.
Why is the ‘Aussie flu’ outbreak so bad?
Despite the name, Australia isn’t actually responsible for the latest strain of flu – every year the virus mutates and it just happens that Australia experienced the newest version first.
Over there, it sparked the worst outbreak on record, with some hospitals reporting standing room only after being swamped by cases. Experts have since discovered ‘Japanese flu’, another strain, which has recently swept across Ireland.
‘Every year flu viruses change proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system, making them more deadly – so resistance is a bit more limited,’ explains Prof Dingwall. ‘This year it isn’t so bad as to threaten civilisation, but it is going to give us a bad winter.’
According to experts it is still not too late to get the vaccination against the flu
Who is most at risk?
As with any strain of the flu, pregnant women, young children and those aged over 65 face the highest risk.
Those with long-term medical conditions – such as diabetes, or heart, lung, kidney or neurological diseases – are also in this category, as are those with weakened immune systems, such as chemotherapy patients.
Even if you’ve had the flu in the past, you’re still at risk – although there is some evidence that resistance may improve if you’ve previously caught a similar virus.
How can I prevent it?
The most obvious prevention method is the flu jab, which contains small, deactivated and