After 18 months of social restrictions, there’s likely to be a greater circulation of common viral infections this winter. Here’s what you can do to identify, treat and prevent colds and flu.
‘The flu virus is one to watch out for this winter. Scientists believe this is due to lockdowns causing lower levels of flu in the community. While we’ve all been focused on stopping the spread of Covid, our immune systems haven’t been exposed to the usual mix of infections it would normally have to contend with,’ explains Dr Ashraf.
Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a seasonal respiratory illness with lots of different strains. It’s spread through the droplets produced when we cough and sneeze, and these can spread easily indoors and in warm environments with poor ventilation.
Flu is known as a seasonal infection because it spreads most commonly during December to March, sometimes leading to outbreaks.
What are the symptoms of flu?
Symptoms of flu appear abruptly, around 2 days after your body has come into contact with the infection. They include:
- A runny nose
- Sore throat
- Upset stomach
- Muscle aches
- Joint pains
Dr Ashraf explains how it’s sometimes difficult to know if you have the common cold or the flu virus because the symptoms can be very similar, but the main differences to look out for are how quickly your symptoms develop.
‘Flu symptoms come on quickly. They include a fever and muscle aches and can make you feel too unwell to carry on with your usual activities. Some people may need to be off work and school to rest at home. Cold symptoms, caused by a different virus, come on more gradually and are milder. This means that most people often feel well enough to carry on with their daily activities and they don’t need to rest at home. Cold symptoms are predominantly related to a runny nose and sore throat.’
What's the best way to treat the flu?
The best treatment for the flu is rest. This may mean taking time off work or school and taking time out from your hobbies and social activities. Drink plenty of fluids to make sure your body is well hydrated, and it's always a good idea to stay cosy and warm.
You can use over the counter medications like paracetamol and ibuprofen to help with fever and pain, but remember to never give aspirin to children under 16.
Most people will feel better in about a week, however some people can develop complications from flu. These can include bacterial infections including pneumonia or a worsening of another existing lung condition, like asthma or COPD. For pregnant women, flu can be especially harmful to mum and baby.
You should always speak to a GP if you’re concerned about your symptoms or if:
- You’re over 65
- You’re pregnant
- Your symptoms are not improving after one week
- You have a long term health condition, such as lung disease, heart problems, kidney disease or problems with your nervous system
- Your immune system is weaker due to medication, chemotherapy or HIV
If you start to experience chest pain, difficulty breathing or coughing up blood then it’s best to go to A&E or ring 999.
What can I do to prevent the flu?
Get the flu vaccine
One of the best ways to protect yourself from the flu is to get the vaccine. ‘Given the low levels of immunity in the community due to the lockdowns caused by Covid, it’s even more important to get the flu vaccine if you're invited, ‘says Dr Ashraf.
‘All eligible people will be contacted by their GP to have the flu vaccine this year. The flu vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting flu and although it can’t protect you from every type, it does protect you against the most common strains. If you do catch the flu after having the vaccine, your symptoms will be milder and you’re less likely to suffer complications.’
Keep up good hygiene
Because of the Covid pandemic we’ve all become more aware of the importance of hygiene to prevent the spread of infections. These measures work well for the flu too:
- Clean surfaces which are regularly touched, like door handles, phones and keyboards
- Wash your hands with soap and water frequently
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
- Throw away used tissues in a bin immediately after using
If you're worried about flu or flu-like symptoms, a pharmacist can give you advice on remedies to try safely alongside any other medications you may be using. You must be careful if you're already taking paracetamol or ibuprofen, as some remedies contain these and it’s easy to accidentally take more than the recommended dose.
If you are eligible for the flu vaccine, look out for a message from your GP inviting you to have your jab.