Flu, shortened from influenza, is an infection of the upper respiratory system which is extremely contagious. Although the common cold and flu share similar symptoms, they are quite different infections. Flu is caused by a specific group of viruses known as the influenza virus whereas colds can be caused by over 200 viruses.
There are a number of different strains of flu, such as swine flu and avian flu (also known as bird flu), with more forming as the virus mutates. This is why people continue to come down with the flu each year and that there is the need to renew the flu vaccination each winter.
The flu virus can be spread from one person to the next from day one and before symptoms appear. Hence, it is possible to spread the flu before one notices symptoms.
Flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are three main types of this virus simply known as A, B and C:
- Influenza virus type A – this is the most common type and causes annual outbreaks of flu
- Influenza virus type B – this is less common, causing outbreaks every three to five years
- Influenza virus type C – this type of virus presents the mildest symptoms, often similar to those of a cold.
Flu viruses mutate every year. This means that immunity developed to one type of virus will be unlikely to protect you the following year as the virus changes.
You can be infected with a flu virus for up to two days before symptoms appear. Unlike a cold, when flu symptoms appear, they arrive quickly and often unexpectedly.
Flu symptoms generally follow a specific pattern, starting with a fever, excessive sweating or night sweats and aching muscles, developing into cold-like symptoms and leaving you feeling fatigued for a week or more after the other symptoms have disappeared.
In some people with a weakened immune system, flu symptoms can be more severe with complications and it is important to seek medical attention.
Flu symptoms overlap with symptoms of the common cold. Severe symptoms of cold are often interpreted as flu. In reality, it is difficult to tell the difference between a cold and flu without medical tests to identify the viral cause.
There is not a specific cure for flu. Antibiotics have no effect as they act on bacteria, not viruses.
However, there is a range of treatments which will help with the symptoms of flu, and speed up recovery. These include:
- Conventional medicines – these range from painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen to antiviral drugs (mainly oseltamivir and zanamivir)
- Herbal remedies – many people look for a herbal remedy such as Echinacea to strengthen their immune system
- Home remedies – there is a variety of remedies for flu which can be found in your kitchen cupboard. An example is a cup of tea which will keep you hydrated, as well as the warmth soothing your throat, with the steam clearing a blocked nose.
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There are measures you can take to prevent picking up flu infections. The flu jab (flu vaccination) is usually advised by doctors for certain groups of people, such as the over 65s, pregnant women and those who have a weaker immune system.
As well as this, there are certain lifestyle steps which you can employ to reduce your chances of getting the flu.
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In many cases, flu is unpleasant while it lasts but does not require medical attention to get better. However, in some cases it is advisable to see a doctor.
It is important to remember that the flu is not just a bad cold but has the potential to be a serious health risk particularly among children, the elderly and those with an underlying health condition.
If you experience severe or persistent symptoms or develop a complication of the flu such as a persistent cough or severe fever, it may be necessary to go to the doctor. If you are worried about your condition, it is always important to seek medical attention.