With flu season rearing its ugly head – influenza activity often begins to increase in October and flu viruses can last through to May – it’s time to get familiar with the best go-to resources on how to protect yourself and get over the flu fast, how to avoid getting ill in the first place and the things you can do at home to fend off the nasties during the upcoming colder months. After all, an average of more than 200,000 adults in the US are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year (1).
What is flu?
Flu, or influenza virus, is a very contagious and extremely common viral illness. Although it mainly affects the respiratory system causing symptoms like runny nose, cough and sneezing, it is in fact a multi-system condition. It can also cause symptoms affecting the rest of the body including fever, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, headache and sometimes stomach ache.
What does the flu do to your body?
Many people question why the body aches when you have the flu or wonder how influenza attacks the body – simply, there are two proteins on the surface of the influenza virus that help it wreak havoc in your body. One protein allows the virus to bind to the cells that line the surface of your airways, and when the virus has replicated, another surface protein allows it to slide off of the surface of the cell and infect new cells.
One reason that year on year the flu virus manages to evade our immune systems is that its genetic code is constantly changing. This is due to frequent errors that occur when the virus is replicating its’ genetic code.
Another reason the flu virus is so evasive to our immune system is that the genes of two different flu viruses sometimes become jumbled together creating a completely new strain.
The virus is spread from person to person by coughs and sneezes almost like an aerosol spray. If the person who has been coughed or sneezed on is not immune to the flu virus, it invades the cells of the respiratory tract. Inside the cells, the virus wreaks havoc disrupting cell processes and degrading the cell itself. All the while, the virus is replicating inside the cell and then releasing new virus into the airways – like a contagious cycle.
The symptoms from flu are caused by and occur because chemicals are released by the body – called inflammatory mediators – to help tackle the virus. It is these chemicals that result in many of the flu symptoms.
How long does the flu last?
Typically, the flu will last 2 to 5 days, although some people may have symptoms for a week.
How long are you contagious for?
Flu is contagious from one day before the onset of symptoms. So, you can spread it to other people before you even know you have it. Infectivity persists for 5-10 days but in young children or people who have a weakened immune system, it can be even longer.
Flu treatment: Best home remedies for cold and flu
Often underestimated but absolutely vital to recovery is rest. Listen to your body. Do not rush back to work before you are ready (especially as you may still be contagious!).
Ensure you’re sipping regular fluids such that your urine is clear and straw-coloured.
Helpful in reducing pain and fever, paracetamol won’t make the flu go away any quicker but can help relieve some of the symptoms.
4. Antiviral medication
Not everyone needs antiviral medication and these particular medicines can cause tummy upset. However, they slow the replication of the virus and can reduce the duration of symptoms by about a day. They are most useful in people with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the flu.
However, antibiotics and cough medicines don’t help and are best avoided. This is because flu is caused by a virus, whereas antibiotics only treat infections caused by bacteria and therefore don’t work in fighting the flu. The side effects of taking antibiotics may cause additional unhelpful symptoms such as nausea and diarrhoea.
Always check with your Doctor before taking any new medication.
How to protect yourself from influenza during flu season
There are a few simple everyday habits that can help you prevent and avoid the flu, especially when you feel it coming on:
• Wash hands frequently with either soap and water or a good quality hand sanitizer to prevent getting flu.
• Encourage others and practice yourself, coughing or sneezing into the crook of the elbow rather than your hands. Make sure you discard used tissues immediately.
• It seems obvious, but where and when possible, stay away from people who have the flu and if you have the flu, don’t be tempted to soldier on and stay at work infecting everyone else.
• The flu vaccine has also been found to be an effective way to prevent yourself against flu. Ideally, it should be given at the beginning of the flu season (which starts in November in the Northern Hemisphere to offer maximum protection and needs to be repeated at beginning of each new flu season. Check in with your GP if you have any questions or concerns about the flu jab.
When should I go to the Doctor for the flu?
Thankfully, most people recover from the flu without any specific treatment and do not need to see a Doctor. However, sometimes flu can cause serious complications so you should contact your doctor if:
• You are feeling short of breath.
• You feel confused.
• You are vomiting so much you cannot keep down fluids.
• You have dizziness on standing or are not passing much urine which can mean that you are dehydrated.
• You have pain in the chest or stomach.
Make sure to stay safe this season by taking simple precautions to help you avoid getting caught in the flu cycle! For any serious health concerns when you’re ill, speak to your Doctor immediately.