Influenza (the Flu)

Influenza, or the flu, is a highly contagious viral infection. It is most often caused by type A or B (rarely C) influenza viruses that infect the upper airways and lungs. Most flu cases in Australia occur during winter. In tropical and subtropical areas, like Queensland though, the flu is common all year round.

The flu is very serious. For young kids, especially children under 5, people over 65 years of age, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, lung or heart disease, it can result in hospitalisation or worse.

Most people recover from the flu within a week, although a cough and tiredness can last longer. Serious complications of flu occur in a small number of people. These include pneumonia, inflammation of the heart muscle and neurologic complications.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • a sore throat
  • dry cough
  • headaches
  • muscle or joint pain
  • and tiredness or exhaustion.

Symptoms usually appear 1 to 3 days after becoming infected.

Children are more likely to have gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

In the elderly, there may be no fever and the only signs and symptoms of flu may include confusion, shortness of breath and the worsening of a chronic condition.

Treatment

The flu is best managed by:

  • bed rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • over-the-counter medication to help relieve symptoms (take only as directed).

How it spreads

The flu is mostly spread in two ways. First, is by airborne droplets from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking. Second, is by touching contaminated surfaces (such as hands, remote controls, phones, keyboards and door handles) and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

People with the flu are generally infectious from 24 hours before symptoms appear until a week afterwards. Children and those who have a compromised immune system can be infectious for longer.

Prevention

Vaccination and practising good hand and respiratory hygiene is your best defence against the spread of the flu.

To protect yourself and those around you here are 7 easy steps to help fight the flu:

  • Get a flu shot every year
  • If you are unwell, stay at home and avoid contact with others
  • Wash your hands often and properly with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • Cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue or a flexed elbow. Throw your tissues away immediately and wash your hands afterwards
  • Try to stay 1.5 metres away from anyone who coughs and sneezes
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces regularly with soap and water or detergent
  • Don’t share items such as cups, glasses, cutlery, lip balm, toys or anything which has come into contact with the mouth or nose.

Why vaccination is important

Vaccination is the best way to reduce the risk of getting flu and its possible complications. Being vaccinated builds immunity to the virus and helps prevent transmission of the virus to other people. It is recommended annually for anyone over 6 months of age.

It is extremely important for children aged 6 months to under 5 years of age and those who are in a high-risk group to be vaccinated. It is proven to reduce risk of contracting the flu and suffering from its possible complications.

Flu is more common in children. The flu also causes one of the highest rates of hospitalisation for children under 5, compared to other preventable diseases in this age group. Complications include pneumonia, convulsions and, while rare, encephalitis (life-threatening brain inflammation).

Children also contribute greatly to spreading the flu. Vaccinating children protects the wider community and those who are vulnerable to serious complications. This includes babies, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions.

Why the flu vaccine is needed every year

The strains used in seasonal influenza (flu) vaccines can change each year depending on which viruses are predicted by experts to be circulating in the community. For this reason, everyone 6 months and above should get a new flu vaccine every year. Getting the flu vaccine once they are available from your local doctor or immunisation provider will provide protection for the flu season, which in Queensland is typically from June to September with the peak usually in August.

The flu is different to a cold

Colds and the flu are both viral respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Both of these illnesses can have similar symptoms and at first it can be difficult to tell the difference.

In general, the symptoms of the flu are more severe and last longer than those of a cold. While colds usually pass in a few days, the flu can have life-threatening consequences.

Free flu vaccine

The flu vaccine is recommended annually for everyone over 6 months of age and is available free under the National Immunisation Program for high-risk groups. These include:

  • children aged between 6 months to under 5 years of age
  • people aged 65 years and over
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and older
  • pregnant women
  • people over 6 months with a medical condition that can lead to complications from the flu.

Free flu vaccines are available from doctors, community health clinics, Aboriginal Medical Services and other immunisation providers. Some doctors may charge a fee for consultation but the vaccine itself is free.

Pharmacists are also able to provide flu vaccines for anyone aged 10 years and older. Pharmacists will charge a fee and this may vary between pharmacies.

When to seek help

See your doctor or health provider, or call 13 HEALTH (13 432 584) if you:

  • are concerned about your symptoms
  • are in a high-risk group
  • have a fever of 38º C or more that is not improving.