Influenza (flu)

Influenza (flu)

What is influenza?

Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a viral infection which is more common during the winter months, usually between October and March.

How is the flu virus contracted?

As influenza is a viral infection, it is passed from one person to another through the air. The nose, throat and lungs are the three areas of the body attacked by the flu virus. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof method of avoiding flu during the winter months.

From time to time, flu epidemics can spread quickly from one area to another, and even from one country to another, with huge numbers of people being infected.

How long does it last?

A bad bout of flu can last for five days, and may be followed by a general feeling of fatigue and lethargy for up to three weeks.

What are the symptoms?

A number of symptoms are associated with the flu, but probably the most obvious ones are headaches, a dry cough and fever with a temperature somewhere in the region of 38 to 40 degrees centigrade. A good indication that you are suffering from flu and not just a cold is if your illness begins suddenly, and over a number of hours you feel increasingly unwell.

Anyone suffering from the flu can have a combination of all, or some, of the following symptoms:

  • Fever (with temperature in the region of 38 to 40 degrees centigrade).
  • Runny nose and sore throat, usually accompanied by a dry, tickly cough.
  • Aching pains in the muscles and joints.
  • Severe headaches.
  • Dry cough
  • Chest pains.
  • No appetite.
  • Inability to sleep at night - may feel cold and shivery, or hot and sweaty.
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea.

How is it treated?

Since the flu is a viral infection, it does not respond to antibiotic treatment. The best possible remedy is to rest, preferably in bed, and drink plenty of fluids, until the worst of the symptoms begin to disappear. Paracetamol should be taken regularly to lower the temperature and treat the symptoms.

People who are admitted to hospital with influenza are frequently treated with antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections and are usually rehydrated by giving fluids in a drip.

Can it be prevented?

Because there is always the danger, particularly in older people and those with chronic lung disease or other chronic illnesses, that a bout of flu may lead to pneumonia, vaccination against influenza is strongly advised. However, this will not protect you against coughs and colds during winter.

The Department of Health organises an annual national influenza vaccination campaign with the focus firmly fixed on older people and those with chronic illness. This vaccination, which consists of a single injection, is available free of charge from GPs around the country, and all older people are strongly advised to avail of it in early autumn each year.

What self-help remedies are available?

There are a number of ways in which a bout of winter flu can be dealt with. The most important thing to remember is: Don't try to fight the flu. If you do, you probably won't win, and you will end up getting a much more severe illness than if you had taken to your bed at the outset! Self-help remedies that should be tried include:

  • Rest, rest and more rest - preferably by staying in a warm bed, and try to get as much sleep as possible.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, because a lot of liquids are lost during a high fever.
  • If you are a smoker, stop smoking as this may only exacerbate your symptoms.
  • Common painkillers such as paracetamol will help to reduce fever and ease aches and pains in the muscles and joints. Take them regularly, but do not exceed the recommended dose.
  • If a dry, tickly cough is present, an over-the-counter cough remedy may relieve the symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol.

When should I consult a doctor?

Provided you are a healthy and reasonably fit person, there should be no reason to pay a trip to your local GP if you develop flu-like symptoms. Try all the self-help remedies suggested above, and if the symptoms persist for more than a week, or if there is a marked deterioration in your condition, it may be necessary at this stage to get in touch with your GP.

Older people, those who have respiratory conditions and young children need to be monitored carefully if they suffer from flu, due to the risk of contracting pneumonia.

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