What is influenza?

Influenza or ‘flu’ is a viral infection that mainly affects the nose, throat and the lungs. There two main types of influenza that cause infection; Influenza A  which is usually a more severe infection and Influenza B which tends to occur most often in children although it can affect any age.

Influenza is worse than an ordinary cold. It usually starts suddenly with a high fever which can last for three to four days. A dry cough headaches and chills are common as are general muscle aches and pains. The fever tends to decrease after the second day when a runny nose and a sore throat may become more noticeable. Some people may also feel sick or have diarrhoea and tiredness can last two to three weeks.

Flu symptoms include

  • Temperature / fever 38ºC or higher
  • Shivering
  • Headache and chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Nausea, sickness and diarrhoea

A cold is often limited to a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, and throat irritation and the symptoms occur gradually.

How do you catch influenza?

Influenza is mostly caught by breathing in air containing the virus when an infected person coughs / sneezes or by touching a surface where the virus has landed and then touching your mouth or nose.

How infectious is influenza?

Influenza is infectious and can spread rapidly form person to person. Some strains of virus are more infectious than others, or cause more severe illness.

How can you treat someone with influenza?

Most people with influenza do not need special treatment. Influenza is caused by a virus so antibiotics do not help unless there is a complication. Sometimes a special ‘antiviral’ medicine is given to people in the ‘at risk’ groups or whose illness is getting worse.

Someone with influenza should:

  • Keep warm and rest
  • Drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Paracetamol can be given to reduce the fever. Aspirin MUST NOT be given to children under 16 years of age as it has been associated with the development of a severe neurological disorder called Reye’s syndrome
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and dispose of used/dirty tissues in a bin
  • Stay at home while feeling ill with influenza as this reduces the chance of spreading the infection to others
  • Encourage handwashing with soap and water

How serious is influenza?

Most people recover from influenza in a matter of days or a week. For others, for example older people, pregnant women, those with other illnesses (such as chest or heart disease, or diabetes and new-born babies, influenza can be a serious illness.

Can you prevent influenza?

There is a vaccine available every year to protect against influenza. Each year a new vaccine has to be produced to protect against influenza viruses expected to be in circulation that winter to boost the immune response.

The vaccine is very safe and side effects are uncommon and usually mild. The vaccine is usually given during the autumn before the ‘flu season’ begins and can be accessed by your GP or local pharmacist.

The vaccine is not recommended for everyone, but it is advisable for those likely to be more seriously affected by influenza. This includes:

  • Those aged 65 years and over.
  • Pregnant women
  • All children aged two-eight on 31 August 2017
  • Front line health care workers, including those who work in care homes
  • People of any age with chronic heart, lung, neurological, metabolic disorders (including severe asthma and diabetes), kidney problems or a lowered immune system due to treatment or disease
  • Those in long stay residential care accommodation where influenza, once introduced may spread rapidly
  • Obese people (includes adults with BMI >40)
  • It is recommended that immunisations be offered to health and social workers involved in the direct care of and/or support to patients and also anyone caring for a person in the at risk groups

Fit adults under the age of 65 years who are not in one of the groups mentioned above are not offered the vaccine as part of the national programme. However, this list is not exhaustive and if you are unsure if you should have the influenza vaccine then please discuss with your GP.

Will I be admitted to hospital?

The majority of people will be able to be cared for in their own homes. However some patients may need to be admitted to hospital for care if their condition is serious enough. If you are admitted to hospital with suspected or confirmed influenza you will be nursed in a single room in isolation. The staff caring for you will be wearing protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns. All of this helps prevent the infection spreading throughout a whole ward and the hospital.

Relatives and visitors do not need to wear this protective equipment as they are not providing care for the patients on the ward or throughout the hospital. We ask that relatives and visitors remain with the person they are visiting as socialising with other patients may pass on the infection. All relatives and visitors are advised to wash their hands or use the alcohol gel upon entering and leaving the ward.

What you can do to help prevent influenza spreading?

There are a few simple things we can all do to help prevent the spread of infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water and dry thoroughly
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and dispose of used/dirty tissues in a bin
  • It is best to stay at home while feeling ill with influenza as this reduces the chance of spreading the infection to others

For more information

Visit the NHS Choices website here


Ref: 07-17-119
Review: 02/20