Flu is a viral infection that's most common during the winter months. Get information about symptoms, treatment and vaccinations.
What is it?
Influenza, more commonly known as flu, is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus. It's passed on when people breathe in liquid droplets containing the virus that have been sneezed or coughed into the air, or when people touch objects contaminated with the virus. The symptoms, which include fever, headache, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, appear quickly.
Possible complications include pneumonia, which often needs hospital treatment. It can be fatal. The virus can cause infections all year round, but it's most common in the winter. Anyone can get flu and the more close contact a person has with people who have the virus, the more likely they are to get it.
The UK has a safe and effective vaccination against flu, which is provided free by the NHS. It's recommended for people at greatest risk of harm from the flu virus.
People who are advised to have a flu vaccination include:
everyone over the age of 65
people of any age with lung disease (such as asthma), heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes or lowered immunity
anyone living in a residential or nursing home
people caring for those at risk of flu complications
Those most at risk are advised to have a vaccination every year. This is because the flu virus changes slightly every year. Scientists work hard to predict the strains of flu virus and develop vaccines against them.
Despite popular belief, flu vaccination can't give someone flu as it doesn't contain the active virus needed to do this. It's true some people experience symptoms of a heavy cold at the same time or just after they've had the flu jab. This is simply a coincidence and the symptoms are usually caused by one of the many common cold viruses around in autumn and winter. Remember, it's still possible to suffer heavy colds after vaccination, as the flu jab only protects people from the flu virus, not other viruses.
Despite popular belief, flu vaccination can't give someone flu
The flu vaccination is ususally available from about October each year. Anyone who thinks they need it should talk to their doctor or practice nurse.
Reducing your risk
The best way to avoid getting flu is to strengthen your immune system by eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, getting enough rest and relaxation, and not smoking.
You should also avoid people who are coughing and sneezing, especially if they're not covering their mouth and nose.
Cold or flu?
Flu strikes suddenly and affects the whole body. One minute you're happy at work, the next you've been knocked for six and are too ill to do anything. It lasts for about seven days and generally leaves you feeling exhausted for weeks afterwards.
Flu strikes suddenly and affects the whole body.
It's different from the common cold, in which the symptoms tend to come on gradually, usually affecting only the nose, throat, sinuses and upper chest. When someone has a cold, they're still able to get about and usually recover fully after about a week.
These are the best ways to treat the symptoms of flu:
Take plenty of rest because the body uses a lot of energy fighting infections so resting for the first couple of days gets it off to a good start
Make sure you drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
Take paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen to lower a high temperature and relieve headaches and muscles aches
Drink hot water with lemon, ginger and honey
Antibiotics are no use in the treatment of flu because it's caused by a virus. Specific antiviral treatments for flu are available, but generally these are only given to those at high risk of flu complications.
Advice on suitable remedies is available from your local pharmacist. Always contact your doctor if you're not getting better after a few days, if you're unduly short of breath or if you're coughing up blood or large amounts of yellow or green phlegm.