Flu season is well and truly underway here in Australia as we muddle through the depths of winter. With the cooler weather inevitably comes colds and flus that lay many of us up, sometimes with little niggles, sometimes with much more serious illness. To be prepared, let’s look at everything you need to know about flu season.
When we talk about the flu, we’re generally talking about infection with the influenza virus. There are dozens of other viruses that can cause flu-like illnesses and colds, and these can also range in severity. A flu tends to mean an illness that has runny nose, sneezing, sore throat but also things like fever, chills, muscle pains, lethargy or fatigue amongst other things. A common cold generally has just those sneezing and a sore throat.
What is the influenza virus?
The influenza virus is actually a family of 4 different types of viruses called Influenzavirus A-D. Influenza A is the virus that is responsible for the Spanish Flu, Swine Flu and Bird Flu and has two markers that mutate and change, which is why it’s called H1NI (Spanish and Swine Flu) or H5N1 (Bird Flu). Inlfuenza B is not as common but almost exclusively effects humans and doesn’t mutate as rapidly as A.
The Influenzavirus is spread through sneezing, coughing and touching a surface where the virus is (like a door handle) and then touching your face, or mouth. A sneeze can shed over half a million virus particles and the virus can survive on surfaces for as long as one to two days. It’s why if you are sick, observing hygiene practices like covering your mouth and hand washing are vital in stopping the spread.
In 2019, we’ve seen a huge number of confirmed cases of the flu. To test this, we take a little swab from the nose or mouth and test for the virus. This year to date has seen 97,920 laboratory confirmed cases, nearly double last year’s cases.
Now while most of us will stay in bed for a few days feeling miserable, that isn’t the case for everyone. Along with high numbers of people affected by influenza in Australia this year, we have also seen dozens of deaths in each state from influenza. People who are most at risk of complications or death include people over 65, pregnant women or people with other medical conditions. Sadly though, there are often cases of people who have serious complications or die from a flu infection who are otherwise fit and well.
Treatment for influenza virus.
We do have some antiviral treatments available but as with antibiotics there are concerns with resistance developing. They also have variable effects so we don’t use them on everyone. Largely, staying at home, and doing simple things like sleeping, getting enough fluids and taking paracetamol is enough. However, for anyone who has breathing troubles, a linger illness, high fevers, rashes, dizziness or being generally concerned, a doctor’s visit or even a hospital visit may be in order.
Each year, a vaccine is released that is created based on what we think the most common and threatening circulating strains will be. This year, the flu shot covers two types of Influenza A and influenza B and seems to be in keeping with what is actually around so should offer good protection. It’s not too late to get your flu shot, so see your GP or pharmacist and stay well this winter.