Facing up to flu

Every winter it is one of the main topics of conversation. “I had the flu all week.” I’ve a touch of it myself, I’m all blocked up” or “My son is off school with a high temperature”.

Flu is one of the most common acute respiratory illnesses in the world and can affect between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in a year, causing illness and even death in some high-risk patients.

How can you ward off this nasty virus? Get plenty of sleep, eat healthily, take adequate exercise and deal with stress in a positive way. You may be lucky enough to have a strong immune system which will battle around the clock to keep the bugs at bay. Or perhaps if you are in the high-risk category and were sensible you have had the flu vaccine.

Most of us spend winter trying to dodge this contagious virus - one of the most powerful in the world according to medical experts - which is easily passed on by breathing in the tiny invisible droplets which are expelled when infected people cough, sneeze or talk.

Influenza is totally different from a cold. Flu, the symptoms of which include headache, fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles and joints, can leave you lying in bed, feeling the worse for wear for days.

Those most at risk are young and elderly people. The young have a greater risk of being infected because they have not developed immunity to the virus. The elderly are vulnerable to the severe complications of infection, such as pneumonia because they often have underlying diseases which reduce their resistance to infection. Their immune systems may also be less effective.

Severe illness

Other high-risk groups include people whose respiratory, cardiac or immune systems make them more susceptible to flu and more likely to suffer severe illness. These include diabetics, asthmatics, people with chronic heart and kidney disease, those with lowered immunity due to steroid medication or cancer treatment, and people in long-stay residential accommodation where flu, once introduced, may spread rapidly.

Some 85 per cent of flu-related deaths occur in those aged over 65 years. Flu can strike suddenly and progress rapidly. You may feel perfectly well in the morning but by the afternoon you have all the typical symptoms of the condition: you feel weak, have a throbbing head, high temperature, rasping throat, hacking cough and ache all over.

It takes about two to three days for the symptoms to appear once you pick up the virus. The contagious period varies, an infected person can probably pass on the disease the day before the symptoms appear and remain potentially infectious for three to five days.

Unlike the common cold, which is usually content to play havoc with your chest or nasal passages, the dreaded flud likes to travel further afield into your bloodstream and around the body. It is this which causes the fever and makes you feel so unwell.

While there is no cure, prompt treatment during the early stages minimises the effect, shortens the convalescence and reduces the risks of complications developing. You should rest and take plenty of fluids. The fever can be treated with paracetamol.

Facts about flu

* Symptoms include fever (temperature can rise to 104 degrees as the body attempts to eliminate the virus by overheating ), headache (often so severe it causes searing pain behind the eyes ), sore throat, aches and pains (every part of the body seems to ache, especially the joints ) coughing, sneezing and lethargy

* People usually contract the flu virus in crowded, humid places such as buses, cinemas and schools. Its spread occurs most easily in enclosed spaces or when infected people are near other people

* The highest rates of infection usually occur in children who often infect the adults in the family

* The virus is carried through the air in invisible droplets which are expelled when people cough, sneeze or talk

* It is seasonal and you are most likely to catch it during the cold months between October and March. However, the virus may continue until late spring

*After being infected by flu it takes from 18 to 72 hours for the symptoms to develop

* It can be a serious illness in those with chronic underlying disease and among older people

* The virus continually alters its structure to outsmart the body’s immune system

* Antibiotics will not counteract viral symptoms but can be lifesaving if secondary infection, such as pneumonia, occurs

* Good hygiene can help flu spreading. Frequent hand washing, the disposal of tissues used for nose blowing, and covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing all help to reduce its spread

* Flu is more serious than a cold, causing loss of appetite and, in extreme cases, death

* Most victims are ill for between six and 10 days. They often need to rest in bed for three days and restrict their activities for five days. Some people take longer to recover and may feel lethargic and off colour for a few weeks

* Within a community an epidemic usually peaks within two weeks and lasts four to eight weeks or longer

How to help yourself

* Rest as much as possible. No matter how busy you are it is important to take time out to prevent the virus from spreading into your lungs

* A cough medicine will help you sleep at night

* Take a pain relieving medication to ease the aches and pains that go hand in hand with flu. It will also help reduce a fever. Children and teenagers should not be give aspirin-containing medicines because they increase the risk of developing a rare but serious complication called Reye’s syndrome.

* Drink lot of fluids - this helps you to swallow the mucous that your lungs produce which helps protect them

* It is advisable to stay at home to avoid passing the virus on to others

* Contact your doctor if you have any of the following: temperature more than 100 degrees F for more than three days or fever that does not go down after taking medication, such as paracetamol, difficulty breathing, coughing up phlegm or if your symptoms are no better after seven to 10 days.

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