Over the cooler months of the year, colds and influenza (flu) are always more common. Some people believe that this is because the drop in ambient temperature also means a drop in body temperature and it is this combination which makes us more prone to becoming unwell.
But the fact is that viruses cause colds and flu, not being or feeling cold.
And of course during the cooler months we tend to stay inside more and it is simply easier for viruses to spread between people who are in close proximity to each other.
Most cases of flu occur over the 6-8 week time frame over winter and spring.
What is Influenza?
It may be helpful if at first we discuss what Influenza “flu” is not. It is not a common cold but something quite separate. Confusion is common for many people who automatically defer to diagnosing themselves with the flu, every time they have a simple cold.
There are two main types of Influenza – A and B. It can be hard to identify which one an individual may have as the symptoms can be so similar. However, seasonal outbreaks of a particular strain make it more likely that when a person has the flu, it has been caused by the most prolific strain which is around that year.
How is Influenza Spread?
By droplet infection. Infected particles of mucous and saliva are the perfect vehicles for transmitting the flu virus.
Influenza is highly contagious amongst groups of people within our communities. The various causative viruses have perfected ways and means of evolving so that it has become very difficult for us to eliminate the causative strains altogether. The influenza virus changes its surface structure making it very hard for the body to recognize it as the flu from year to year.
- Through sneezing and coughing and even talking.
- Through contamination of tissues which contain infected mucous.
- By touching something which has the virus on it and then transferring it to your nose, mouth or eyes.
- Using contaminated eating utensils such as cups and glasses and cutlery which someone with flu has used.
What can I do to Prevent Influenza?
Vaccination is the single most influential way of prevention and developing complications of the flu.
Hand washing is another important strategy in protecting yourself and your children from contracting flu.
Avoid thinking you need to use anti-bacterial hand wash. Liquid soap or simple hand soap will do just as thorough a job.
It’s very important to wash your hands properly:
- Use fresh running water.
- Work the soap into a good lather on your hands.
- Make sure you wash the backs of your hands as well as your palms and fingers.
- Wash in between each of your fingers and around your fingernails.
- Make sure you dry your hands thoroughly.
- Keep your hands well moisturised to avoid the skin drying out and to maintain the integrity of your skin.
What Else Can I do to Prevent Getting Influenza?
- Try to stay away from people who are sick and who have flu.
- Limit your social activities (if possible) when there is an outbreak of flu.
- Eat a very healthy diet and support your immune system to work well.
- Have an influenza vaccine. Check with your GP, workplace health and safety representative or community health centre.
- Consider taking immune supporting vitamins and minerals. There is some solid background research which supports the intake of zinc rich foods and perhaps supplements; speak with your healthcare provider about your individual needs.
- Be very careful about not sharing work and eating surfaces with someone who has the flu.
- When people around you are coughing and sneezing, try to get outside into the fresh air rather than inhale their infected droplets.
- Avoid touching your face/eyes/nose/mouth unless you have just washed your hands.
- Carry anti bacterial gel and/or disposable wipes with you. These are very handy in situations where you cannot access running water and soap.
- Avoid sharing toothbrushes, bed linen and towels with someone who has the flu.
- Importantly, avoid being too pedantic about getting the flu; there is only so much you can do to reduce your risk. Unless you live a totally isolated existence, the fact is that you will be exposed at some time to viruses which spread person to person.
Can Children get Influenza?
Yes they can. But some groups of children are more at risk of both contracting influenza and the complications. Check below to see if your child qualifies for a free vaccine.
Symptoms of Influenza
These can be very similar to the symptoms of the common cold; however, flu usually hits with more intensity and tends to last longer. Depending on the individual, their age and current health status, flu symptoms vary.
Some people only have a mild dose of flue and aren’t too unwell; however this is not consistent with everybody.
The complications of flu can be very concerning and this is one of the reasons why flu vaccine is recommended.
- An elevated temperature. A normal temperature range is around 36.1-37.3 Celsius.
- Feeling shivery with chills and shakes.
- Generalised body aches and pains. Aching joints and bones.
- A runny nose or a congested nose.
- Sore and watery eyes.
- A sore throat. You may feel a dry and scratchy throat as well.
- An irritating cough.
- A general feeling of being unwell.
- Lack of energy.
- Change in appetite and sleeping patterns.
- Feeling very tired and disinterested in usual activities.
- Children will sometimes have diarrhoea, a tummy ache, nausea and/or vomiting.
What’s the Difference between Cold and Influenza Symptoms?
- Cold symptoms tend to last for a shorter timeframe. Influenza can last for a week or more.
- Flu is signalled by a high temperature; a cold generally only causes a low grade fever.
- Muscle aches and pains are more common with flu.
- At the start of flu symptoms, there is usually a dry sensation in the throat.
Reducing the Spread of Influenza by
- Using tissues not handkerchiefs.
- Using tissues once and then throw them away. Avoid reusing tissues again and again.
- Washing your hands after you have blown your nose, used your hands to cover your mouth when you cough or touched your face.
- Using eating and drinking utensils once and then wash them thoroughly. If you have a dishwasher put everything through on the hottest cycle.
- Washing your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet.
- If you are sick then stay away from other people. Call in sick for work and limit your social engagements.
- If your child/ren are sick keep them home from child care/kindy/pre school and school.
- Ask another responsible adult to care for your child/ren if you feel too unwell to care for them yourself.
- Go to bed and rest if you can. This will help to support your immune system to help you recover sooner.
Treatment of Influenza
If you are positively diagnosed with flu by your doctor, you may qualify for specific anti-viral medication. But this needs to be taken within the very early stages of having flu and there is no guarantee that it will help.
Influenza mediation helps to reduce the length of time someone has the flu, rather than eliminating it altogether.
Timing is important in terms of the medications effectiveness. It needs to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. And it is in the early stages of flu that the symptoms are almost identical to a cold, so it can be very hard to know if it is necessary to see a doctor at this stage.
General Tips to help with Treating Influenza
- Drink plenty of fluids. Large amounts of water can be lost from the body through mucous, sneezing and coughing and it’s important to drink plenty of water to compensate for this.
- Care well for yourself. Avoid unnecessary exertion such as exercise, staying up late and pushing yourself to keep doing your usual activities when you just are not up to it.
- Spend your time resting, sleeping and generally taking it easy. Your body is working hard to get back to good health and needs your help to do this.
- Paracetamol in the recommended dose and frequency. Speak with your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure.
- Avoid any cigarette smoke and being exposed to dust and contaminated air particles.
If you’ve had Influenza Before can you get it Again?
Yes, and this is one of the most challenging issues we have when limiting the spread and severity of the flu. Several flu viruses are around at any one time; there is no one virus which causes the flu. And the virus is very clever at mutating and re inventing itself so that the flu vaccine which worked last year is unlikely to provide immunity the next.
You may have had the flu last year but avoid thinking that this means you won’t be at risk of getting it again. Although the symptoms may be very similar, the causative viruses may be completely different.
Who is most at Risk of Getting Influenza?
Some groups within the population are more at risk of both contracting influenza but also developing the complications.
Flu vaccine is particularly recommended for
- Pregnant women.
- Individuals with compromised immunity such as HIV/AIDS and cancers.
- Very young children aged between 6 months to less than 5 years of age.
- Individuals aged 65 years or older.
- Indigenous Australians older than 15 years of age.
- Individuals with pre existing medical conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung or respiratory conditions and/or chronic neurological conditions.
- Some medications make individuals more prone to influenza.
- People who are very overweight or obese.
- People who work in hospitals, aged care facilities or where there are large groups of people and spread is likely.
- Those who live with someone who is aged 65 years or older or who cares for someone who may have compromised immunity.
What are the Complications of Influenza?
Although uncommon, complications still occur, particularly for those people in the “at risk” groups (see above).
- Secondary pneumonia – this is more commonly a bacterial cause.
- Influenza pneumonia.
- Inflammation of the brain; encephalitis/meningitis.
- Cardiac inflammation.
- Reye’s syndrome. It is important not to give Aspirin to children aged less than 16 years.
Influenza Vaccination Tips
- Aim to have your vaccination between March and May each year. This is the most effective timeframe as it is before the flu season starts.
- The time frame of protection starts around 2 weeks after the vaccine has been administered and lasts for around one year.
- Babies ages six months and over and who have a medical condition that may lead to severe influenza qualify for a free influenza vaccination.
Babies aged over six months and over who have any of these medical conditions qualify for a free influenza vaccine
- Heart disease.
- Diseases of the nervous system.
- Severe asthma.
- A chronic lung condition.
- Impaired immunity.
- Chronic illnesses which need ongoing medical follow up or have meant being admitted to hospital in the previous year.
- Children aged between 6 mnths-10 years who are on long term aspirin.
If you are Pregnant
In Australia, influenza vaccine is free for all pregnant women. This is because they are within a high risk category of contracting flu complications.
The vaccine is safe for pregnant women and their unborn baby and also provides immunity for the baby in the newborn period up until they are six months of age.
Check with your GP or local immunisation provider for specific information about your individual needs.
For information about vaccination in your area, contact your state health department at the numbers below:
Australian Capital Territory (02) 6205 2300
New South Wales 1300 066 055
Northern Territory (08) 8922 8044
Queensland 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84)
South Australia 1300 232 272
Tasmania 1800 671 738
Victoria 1300 882 008
Western Australia (08) 9388 4878
Where to go for Help
This article was written by Jane Barry, freelance parenting consultant, copywriter and director of www.mybabybaby.com.au