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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 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 (or hand sanitizers if you're on the go) 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.

When should I see my doctor?

Because flu is so infectious, your doctor may choose to do a phone consultation. They 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 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.

Colds and flu myths

MYTH: Antibiotics are the only way to cure colds and flu.

FACT: Antibiotics are only suitable for the treatment of bacterial infections and do not work on viruses such as those that cause colds and flu. You will only be prescribed antibiotics if the cold turns into a secondary infection such as bronchitis.

MYTH: You catch a cold or flu from someone sneezing on you.

FACT: You’re more likely to be infected with a cold by touching a door handle, tea towel, or a handrail on the bus that’s been contaminated by the virus. Shaking hands also passes on germs. Once your fingers have been contaminated and you rub your eyes or nose, the virus will invade your body. However, with flu, people can become ill if they breathe in droplets containing the influenza virus that have been sneezed or coughed into the air.

MYTH: Feed a cold, starve a fever.

FACT: Never starve yourself! Nutritious hot drinks and soups (rather than solids) are what you need. Hot liquids increase the temperature in the nose and mouth and help kill viruses off more quickly.

MYTH: If you go out with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold.

FACT: It is now thought that you may actually be able to catch a cold by getting cold. When we shiver, our whole body becomes quite stressed, which depresses the immune system. We have bugs in our nose all the time, and when the immune system drops its guard, these seize their chance.

MYTH: You can catch the same cold twice.

FACT: There are around 200 cold viruses and, on average, we catch a couple each winter. However, once the cold ends, your body has built up immunity which will protect you from catching the same virus again.

MYTH: Resting will help banish a cold quickly.

FACT: Gentle exercise and fresh air are more likely to speed your recovery from a cold. But if you come down with flu, go to bed! Rest is essential to help you get better.

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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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