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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Flu is common, and just over 1 in every 10 people suffer from it each year, typically in autumn and winter. Influenza is the name of the virus that causes flu and its symptoms. There are three main types of influenza virus, called A, B and C, although it is usually the type A virus that causes the worst epidemics. Type C influenza is mild to the extent that it is often indistinguishable from a common cold. Type A influenza is usually more debilitating than type B.

Symptoms begin after an incubation period of one to four days and include a high temperature up to 103F, headache, loss of appetite, muscular aches and pains, weakness and marked exhaustion or fatigue.

Symptoms often continue for about a week unless there are complications, in which case new symptoms may commence in the second week. 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 spent 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, while the flu vaccine is offered in the autumn run-up to flu season. The virus can change in nature from year to year, but flu shots keep up with this ever-changing virus, and that’s why we need a booster every year.

The symptoms of the flu are similar to the symptoms of COVID-19 so it is important if you have a continuous cough, fever or a loss of taste or smell, to follow the current government guidelines in your area.

Doctor’s advice

Next steps

Most cases of the flu can be treated at home with rest, simple treatment of symptoms and good hydration, with most people getting better over one or two weeks.

In a small number of cases, flu can be serious. This is in children, the elderly, in pregnancy, if you have an underlying health condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or diabetes, or you have a lowered immune system. If you fall into any of these categories you are strongly urged to get a flu shot each year.

Healthcare workers and professional or at-home caregivers are also urged to get a flu shot, to protect them from being laid low with the flu or passing it on to the more vulnerable.

The flu shot is available at your local pharmacy - they can give you the injection then and there. Contrary to popular belief, the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu, although it can protect you from it. Adverse reactions are rare and in nearly all cases, mild.

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

You are able to 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 can also protect others and lower the chance of you catching the flu in the first place.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

To help with flu symptoms 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.

When should I see my doctor?

Because 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. 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. In a small number of people who have severe cases of the flu, hospital admission may be required.

Am I fit for work?

If you have flu, you are not fit to work.

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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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