The influenza virus comes on quickly and lasts for one to two weeks. Flu symptoms like coughing and sneezing are the same as the common cold and other viruses, but there are tell-tale signs that you have been hit with the flu virus.
Body aches, fatigue, chills and fever are more likely to accompany the flu than other infections. The combination of flu symptoms makes the infected person feel extremely unwell and bedridden while a cold can still allow you to function.
What are the Symptoms of Flu?
The influenza virus is an infection of the respiratory tract, but every part of your body can feel the effects. Your body works hard to fight the infection and stop the spread of the virus resulting in multiple symptoms of the flu. Be alert to a combination of some or all of these symptoms:
A Sore Throat
A sore, itchy or scratchy throat can be an early symptom of the flu. You may not know if it’s just a throat infection or it’s an influenza infection until other symptoms appear. You can improve a sore throat through drinking hot soups, drinks, gargling and cough lollies.
Another common symptom and an early tell-tale sign of the flu is the onset of a bad headache. Infection-fighting molecules called cytokines can bring on inflammation as they fight infection. The sinus cavities fill with mucus during the flu and a headache results from the swelling and inflammation. These headaches are often worse in the morning due to the build-up during the night.
Coughing is a common symptom of flu. The coughing may be accompanied by wheezing and chest tightness. In the later stage of the virus, coughing rids your lungs of mucus or phlegm which may require a visit to your doctor. Mucus dripping from the nose and into the throat can also cause coughing. Cough medicine can provide some relief and calm a cough. Complications of the flu include bronchitis and pneumonia. Some coughs can last weeks or even months because they irritate your lungs and lead to more coughing. If you have a persistent or particularly bad cough we recommend speaking to your GP.
The flu fever can see your body temperature rise above the normal 37.5 degrees as it tries to fight off the infection. A fever can cause a high temperature, shivering, sweating, hot skin and thirst. Drinking plenty of fluids and resting should help. A sponge bath or lukewarm bath can help cool the fever. You can also reduce temperature with medication.
Body Aches and Chills
Body aches occur when the body is fighting off infection. Natural chemicals released in the body to help white blood cells do their job. These chemicals cause inflammation in muscles and joints, similar to mild arthritis or rheumatism. Painkillers or flu medication can reduce the body aches. The achy feeling subsides once the body has fought off the infection.
Body chills are caused by muscles expanding and contracting repeatedly and the vessels in the skin constricting. The chills can last minutes to an hour and are often accompanied by body aches. Feeling cold doesn’t mean you should reach for a blanket particularly if you have a fever. Use a light sheet and clothing, so you don’t overheat, and keep up the fluids.
Feeling extremely weak and tired is a sign of the flu. Staying in bed is often the only remedy for fatigue and can help fight the virus. Fatigue and tiredness can last longer than other flu symptoms.
We usually associate respiratory infections with the flu, but viral gastroenteritis is known as the stomach flu. You may experience nausea, diarrhoea, stomach pains and vomiting. A complication of these symptoms is dehydration. Keep up fluids with hydrolites, fruit juice, sports drinks and flat soft drink.
Length of Infection
The flu usually lasts longer than other viruses. The common cold typically lasts a few days while the flu can last for up to two weeks. A cold will usually clear completely, but a symptom such as a cough can linger for weeks or months.
Symptoms that Require Medical Attention
The flu can cause deadly complications. If you suffer from any of the following symptoms seek medical attention immediately:
How Can You Reduce the Symptoms of Flu?
The flu can be so debilitating that we’ll do anything we can to reduce its effects. Unlike a cold, the flu disrupts your daily activities. You will need at least a few days off work or school to rest and let your body fight the virus. Keep your respiratory system well hydrated with fluids by drinking and eating foods like soup. If you have a fever, use over the counter medications containing ibuprofen or naproxen. For a hacking cough, try a cough mixture that will break up the mucus. Breath in steam or use a humidifier if you are congested and finding it difficult to breathe. Use saline drops or spray for a blocked nose.
Types of Influenza
We usually refer to it as ‘the flu’, but there are multiple strains on the flu with different names. Unless you have a test, there is no way of knowing for sure which one has inflicted its misery on you.
The three types of flu are Influenza A, B and C. A is the most severe and can cause widespread outbreaks. Influenza A virus can infect humans as well as animals causing the avian flu in birds and the swine flu or H1N1 in pigs. These animal strains can be passed to humans.
The flu is always changing, and as new strains are identified in each country, new vaccines are developed.
Who is Most at Risk of the Flu?
Most healthy adults recover from the flu without too many problems. For some people, however, the flu can require hospitalisation and even end in death due to complications.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
People over the age of 65
People with specific medical risk factors
The Australian government recognises the increased risk the flu poses to these groups and provides a free flu vaccine under the National Immunisation Program.
How to Stop the Spread of Flu at Home
If one family member contracts the flu, do what you can to reduce the chance of the rest of the family becoming sick.
In winter we are less likely to open up the doors and windows. However, allowing fresh air to flow through the house can reduce the chance of sickness spreading through the air.
If someone is coughing and sneezing, it’s likely droplets from their nose and mouth are landing on surfaces waiting to be transferred to another family member. Wipe over objects and surfaces that are regularly touched. Using detergent on a cloth is enough to remove the germs. Flu viruses are quite fragile so by removing them from surfaces you are reducing their numbers and the risk of transfer.
Bedding and towels should be washed every day or two to stop other members of the family catching the virus.
It is easy to become complacent about covering your nose and mouth when you are unwell at home. Remind sick family members - particularly children - to cough into their elbow and sneeze into a tissue, then bin or flush the tissues immediately.
How Can You Avoid the Flu in the First Place?
The flu is easily spread. During the summer months, there is a low risk of catching the flu but this changes during the colder months from April to October. At the peak of the flu season around August, there is a moderate to high risk of contracting the flu. There is no sure-fire way to avoid catching the flu, but you can improve your odds of staying flu-free. Follow these recommendations particularly during flu season.
Having the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself. The Australian Government recommends everyone over the age of 6 months has the flu vaccine including pregnant women. Children under the age of nine require two doses of influenza vaccine if they are being vaccinated for the first time. Different vaccines are used for children, adults and those aged over 65 years. The composition of the vaccines is determined each year by the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee based on the World Health Organisation recommendations of the global influenza epidemiology.
When you are out in public limit the surfaces you touch, where possible. It is thought that we touch objects 3.3 timers per hour. The flu virus can stay alive on hard surfaces for at least 24 hours for at least 24 hours, and some studies suggest up to 48 hours, so it’s easy for these germs to transfer from taps, switches, shopping trolleys, pens and terminal buttons on to your hands. Often we don’t have a choice, we need to touch objects so keep a bottle of antibacterial hand gel on you for cleaning your hands.
The germs on your hands can only enter your body via your nose, mouth and eyes so try to get out of the habit of touching any part of your face. The average person touches their face 3.6 times per hour, so there is plenty of opportunities for the germs to transfer. Unless you have just washed your hands, the bacteria can easily move to your face then make their way into your body.
Avoid Crowded Areas
While you don’t want to live in a bubble all flu season, you can reduce your chance of catching the flu by avoiding crowded places. You can’t catch the flu by just being in the same room as an infected person but if they talk, cough or sneeze, the virus becomes airborne. Oral and nasal secretions can be expelled as far as six feet and be breathed in by people around them.
Inhaling airborne particles from an infected person’s sneeze or a cough gives you a much bigger dose of the virus than you would receive from a contaminated surface. Also, the flu virus thrives in water droplets. Its lipid membrane stays intact when surrounded by water, but on your hand, the virus isn’t very stable and becomes inactivated quite quickly. Experts believe that most people become infected with the flu via airborne particles.
Some of the areas you are most likely to catch the flu include child care centres, public transport, aeroplanes, cruise ships, busy cinemas or theatres and shopping centres.
Washing Your Hands
If your hands come in contact with infected surfaces and you then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you are at risk of contracting the virus. Germs can get into the body through these areas on the face.
Hand washing can also help you avoid the flu however several studies investigated by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information have shown that hand hygiene on its own is only minimally effective. As the flu virus doesn’t live long on hands, regular washing is thought to offer little protection.
A Centre for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson agrees that hand washing is not very effective against H1N1 but says it is against other respiratory illnesses. The rhinovirus which causes the common cold has a different makeup to the flu virus, and it has a much longer life on our hands. Regular hand washing throughout the day can remove the rhinovirus germs and stop you getting a cold.
In South East Asia it’s common to see people wearing a face mask in public. The practice took off following the 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2006 bird flu epidemic. Masks are worn by sick people not wanting to infect others but also by healthy people trying to avoid inhaling airborne droplets that cause respiratory illnesses. Flimsy face masks are only minimally effective at preventing the flu but very effective at stopping the spread of the flu if an infected person wears one. The mask does also prevent the wearer from touching their nose, mouth and face which can stop contact infection.
When Can you Return Normal Activities after the Flu?
The flu is easily spread. Adults are usually contagious one day before they have any symptoms, so the virus is spread unintentionally by people who haven’t experienced any warning signs yet. An infected person remains contagious for another 3-4 days after the illness takes hold and children or people with weakened immunity can be contagious for 7 days or more.
It is recommended that you wait at least 24 hours after being fever-free before returning to work and your usual daily activities.
Unfortunately, catching the flu is a bit of a lottery. The virus is everywhere – floating in the air we breathe on landing on surfaces we touch. The best way of tipping the scales in your favour and staying free of the flu is to be vaccinated and stay away from sick people.