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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Influenza is the name of the virus that causes flu and its symptoms. It is common, and up to 2 in 10 people develop it yearly.

Influenza commonly causes a fever, sore throat, cough, sore muscles, and feeling poorly. Symptoms tend to come on quite fast, as opposed to the gradual onset the common cold brings – different viruses are responsible for colds.

For most people, the flu will lead to some days in bed feeling rotten. For the elderly, young children, or people with other serious medical problems, it can be serious, and a number of people die from the flu each year.

The flu virus typically hits in winter, which is why the flu vaccine is offered in the run-up to flu season every autumn. The virus can change a bit from year to year, making it hard for our immune systems to recognize it. We may get severe symptoms as the immune system sets to work to protect us.

The flu shots are updated to keep up with this ever-changing virus, and that’s why we need them every year.

Doctor’s advice

Next steps

Most cases of the flu can be treated at home with rest and good hydration. Most people get better over one or two weeks.

In a small number of cases, the flu can be serious. This is in children, the elderly, and in pregnancy, if you have an underlying health condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or diabetes, or you have a lowered immune system.

You should get a flu shot each year if you fall into any of these categories.

Healthcare workers and professionals or at-home caregivers need to get a flu shot to protect them from being laid low with the flu or passing it on to the more vulnerable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over 6 months get the flu shot yearly.

The flu is very contagious. It can be passed in tiny saliva droplets in the air from someone coughing, sneezing, or even talking. It can also be passed on by touching surfaces or other people’s hands contaminated by droplets and touching your mouth or face.

You can pass on the flu virus a couple of days before developing symptoms yourself, and you remain contagious while you have a fever and other symptoms.

Self-isolating while you have symptoms and regular hand washing will help others and lower the chance of passing on the flu. By wearing a face mask, you also protect others and will lower the chance of you catching the flu in the first place.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

To help with the symptoms of the flu, you should rest, stay well-hydrated with water and hydration salts and take acetaminophen to help with fever and any pain from a sore throat or muscle aches.

Am I fit for work?

If you have the flu, you are not fit for work. If your symptoms could be COVID-19, you should follow government guidelines - stay at home, isolate, and order a COVID-19 test within the first five days of symptoms.

When should I see my doctor?

Because the flu is so infectious, your doctor may choose to do a phone consultation. The doctor will ask about your symptoms and, if necessary, examine you in person. Depending on the possible diagnosis, blood tests, urine tests, or imaging (for example, a chest X-ray) could be carried out, or you may be referred to a specialist department.

The doctor may also prescribe some medication to help with your symptoms. Hospital admission may be required in a small number of people with severe cases of the flu.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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