Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a common viral infection that affects your nose, throat and lungs.
The flu virus is highly contagious and passes from person to person through droplets from the nose, throat or lungs. These droplets can be passed directly, such as when you sneeze, or indirectly, such as when you blow your nose and then touch a door handle.
The flu vaccine (flu jab) can help protect against the virus in some groups of people.
Most symptoms last for 7 days, but some symptoms may last for up to 8 weeks. The most common symptoms are nasal congestion and a sore throat.
There is no cure for the flu but you reduce the duration of the illness by resting, reduce the symptoms with fluids and simple medication from the pharmacy, and look out for complications such as breathlessness, rashes, dehydration, confusion or chest pain.
Flu symptoms can come on suddenly after coming into contact with the influenza virus.
Although the flu can make you feel exhausted, most people feel better within a week. We can help with:
How long does it take for flu symptoms to show? And is it normal for flu symptoms to come and go?
Here are some signs and symptoms of the flu to look out for in adults:
The flu is a progressive illness and can affect different people in different ways. It often comes on suddenly and progresses quickly.
At the first stage of the illness, day 0, you may not notice any symptoms, however, you are most contagious 24 hours prior to symptoms appearing.
At stage 2 of the flu, days 1-3, you may experience early symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains in the muscles, a fever (temperature over 38C) and a dry cough and sore throat. These are the most common flu symptoms.
At stage 3 of the flu, days 4-7, your flu symptoms should start to subside. Your fever should come down, you will be less exhausted and feel fewer aches in your muscles, your cough may start to improve and your breathing will become easier.
Although these are the usual stages of the flu illness, you may be slightly fatigued for up to two weeks and your cough may take longer to get rid of. Some people may experience complications from contracting the flu virus and may end up contracting the secondary infection, pneumonia.
Once you have contracted the flu virus, you are contagious from 1 day (24 hours) before symptoms begin to appear. You are usually contagious for as long as you have any flu symptoms - about a week. Children and those who are at a higher risk of complications from the flu can be contagious for longer. You are contagious until symptoms fade.
The flu vaccine is available on the NHS to some adults and children 6 months of age and older to help protect against infection from the flu virus. The flu vaccine stimulates the body’s development of antibodies. The body’s immune system can then recognise the real influenza virus and will work immediately to fight it off. When the flu vaccine is administered you may experience mild flu-like symptoms for one to two days such as a headache, low fever and mild body aches. This doesn’t mean you have the flu - it is your immune system preparing for the virus.
There are different ways to treat the flu at home so you may have no need to see a doctor. However, you should see a doctor if you are at a high risk of further complications. For example, if you already have a weakened immune system, chronic illnesses or are pregnant. If you experience symptoms over 2 weeks, you should see a doctor.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical care:
You may have experienced flu-like symptoms recently and wondered if you were experiencing a cold or the influenza virus, also commonly known as ‘the flu’.
Although both are respiratory illnesses and are known to share some similar symptoms such as a cough or sore throat, they are caused by different viruses. We can help with:
Do I have the flu or a common cold?
The terms “cold” and “flu” are often used interchangeably. This is because there are some cold and flu symptoms that are similar so it can be difficult to tell them apart. Similarities of the common cold and the flu include:
Colds are much milder and tend not to lead to serious health difficulties. Other differences include:
You can determine what relief is suitable for your cold or flu symptoms using the checker below.
You can check your symptoms against the cold and flu symptom checker below.
There is no cure for the flu yet. This is because the strains of influenza virus can mutate every year. This is also why the flu vaccines need to be taken every year. However, there are steps you can take to get better more quickly.
It is important to treat your flu symptoms as soon as you notice them so they do not get worse. The flu is progressive and can lead to a more serious complication like pneumonia. We can help with:
What symptom relief is available for the flu?
Although there is no fast cure to get rid of the flu, there are steps you can take to speed up the recovery process to get rid of the flu faster:
If you are trying to treat severe flu symptoms such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, confusion and chest pain, you should seek medical attention right away.
You should speak to your GP about the best flu medications for you, however, here are some medicines that work well for colds and flu:
Some flu treatments can have side effects:
Here are some steps you can take to care for someone with the flu:
It is important to keep yourself safe from the flu while you are caring for someone who is infected. You can do this is in various ways:
Aside from buying medications at your local pharmacy, there are many ways to treat your flu symptoms at home. For example, you may have ingredients in your kitchen that help such as lemon and honey.
There are great natural remedies to treat your flu symptoms that you may not have heard of. We can help with:
What are some home remedies for the flu? How can I treat my flu naturally?
Sore throat remedies include:
Apple cider vinegar
Some people believe that a good home remedy for sore throats is apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar might have many health benefits and is identified as an ancient folk remedy. It has an active ingredient called acetic acid, which may help kill bacteria. It might help relieve flu symptoms such as sore throats and coughs. To use this remedy, put 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of warm water and drink. You can add honey for a sweeter flavour.
Gargle salt water
Another great home remedy for sore throats could be salt water. Salt water might help to reduce swelling in your throat by extracting water from the throat tissue. Try adding one teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water and gargle this mix. Remember to spit the mix out - do not swallow.
Lemon and Honey
Another great home remedy for sore throats could be honey and lemon in hot water. Lemon has vitamin C and antioxidants and honey might help to fight infection and relieve throat pain. Mix both in a cup of warm water and drink.
Drinking chicken soup with garlic might also be a great home remedy for sore throats. Garlic contains bioactive compounds that might help fight the flu.
Peppermint tea is a great option for soothing a sore throat. Peppermint tea has potentially anti-inflammatory compounds and the mint can give a slight numbing sensation for your sore throat
Lemon and Ginger Tea
Ginger has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that might help relieve your sore throat as well as congestion, nausea and fevers. Place some ginger in a cup of lemon tea and drink it to relieve your symptoms.
To treat your fever at home, first take your temperature with a thermometer. If your temperature is above 38C, you will know you have a fever. Once you identify that you have a fever, good home remedies could include:
The best home remedy for treating aches and pains is rest. This will allow your joints and muscles to relax as you won’t be over-exerting your body with physical activity.
Another great at home natural remedy for aches and body pains is a warm bath. Warm baths can soothe your muscles and reduce the aches you feel. Warm baths can also promote sweating which can help you release the toxins in your body. You can also add Epsom salt and baking soda to your bath water as these reduce body aches. Stir 1/4 to 2 cups of baking soda into your bath water and let it dissolve. Alternatively, you can mix ⅓ cup of Epsom salt into your bath water. Don’t take a warm bath if you have a temperature.
A great at-home remedy for coughs is the use of steam. Steam helps to loosen up phlegm and can work for both a productive and dry cough. You can run a hot shower or bath and stay in the room while it fills up with steam. Alternatively, fill a large bowl with hot water and lean over the bowl with a towel over your head. A few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus and rosemary can be added to the water to help you feel better.
Other home remedies for a cough include:
Your flu symptoms can cause your body to lose water which can lead to a headache. You should be keeping hydrated in order to avoid this. Home remedies for a headache include:
How do you can stop yourself from getting ill during the flu season? The best way to avoid contracting the influenza virus is to get the flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine is available to some groups of people on the NHS. If you are in this group, you can schedule an appointment with your GP or pharmacist before flu season starts. We can help with:
What is the flu shot? And where is my nearest pharmacy?
The flu vaccine or ‘flu shot’ is an injection you can take to protect against the flu. It is helpful to take the flu vaccine before the flu season begins because the flu virus spreads easily during the winter months. You should get the flu vaccine typically around two weeks before the flu season starts. You can speak to your GP about the type of flu vaccine that is right for you. Children over 2 years are also able to get the flu vaccine in the form of a nasal spray.
The flu vaccine works by prompting the body’s immune system to make antibodies. The flu vaccine contains inactive strains of the influenza virus. When this is injected into the body, the immune system responds by creating antibodies which identifies the virus as a threat and fights it off.
When you are then exposed to the real flu virus, the immune system is able to recognise the virus quickly and produce the right antibodies. To fully build up immunity to the flu virus, this can take anywhere from 10 to 14 days. This is why it is advised to take the vaccine two weeks prior to flu season to be protected.
When you take the flu vaccine, you will be protected from the virus when your immune system comes into contact with it. However, the flu vaccine does not last forever unlike some other vaccines. The flu vaccine provides protection from the influenza virus for around 6 months. The reason it does not last for longer is because the antibodies that are produced when the vaccine is administered start to wane. The strains of influenza viruses also change year to year and mutate frequently so new antibodies need to be produced. This means 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 flu vaccines are all different to target each new strain.
Researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) try to determine which strains of influenza virus are likely to appear each year in the northern hemisphere. Based on the WHO recommendations, vaccine manufacturers develop vaccines to target the most likely strains for the upcoming flu season.
There are many benefits of taking the flu vaccine:
The flu vaccination can cause you to have mild flu symptoms a day or two after you have been administered with the vaccine. Some side effects can include:
If you experience severe symptoms following the vaccine you should consult with a doctor.
Not everyone needs the flu vaccine! You should have the flu vaccine if you:
You can get the flu vaccine at a local pharmacy offering the service or your GP surgery. It is helpful to call the pharmacy first to check that they offer this service. Always check to see if you are eligible for the flu vaccination on the NHS - if you’re not eligible you can pay for this privately.
Some midwifery services also offer the flu vaccine for pregnant women.
A common misconception is that cold weather causes the flu. However, this is not the case. You can get the flu anytime. The flu is more prominent in winter because it’s transmitted faster from person to person in these months.
You can catch the flu from an infected person through a simple handshake. We can help with:
What is a flu epidemic? How is the influenza virus spread?
Every year, very often during winter, many people contract the flu virus. This creates a high risk of flu spreading rapidly.
The flu can be caused by different types of influenza viruses:
It is possible to transmit the flu virus to others one day before symptoms start to appear. This allows the flu to spread easily as you can spread the flu to others before you realise you are ill.
The influenza virus can be found in respiratory droplets and is passed from person to person when one comes into contact with these droplets. There are different ways in which the flu virus is spread:
You may have heard of a flu epidemic or breakout during past winter seasons. An epidemic can be described as an outbreak of disease in a defined region. A flu epidemic may occur when a mutated strain of the influenza virus is not accounted for in the flu vaccine. If a flu epidemic is declared in a region, that indicates that there is an outbreak of flu and the number of people with the flu has risen significantly higher than the typical levels within that region or community. A pandemic, on the other hand, indicates a global outbreak of the disease.
The flu is likely to spread during winter for various reasons:
Prevention is the best medicine for the flu. There are daily habits you can adopt to reduce your risk of contracting the influenza virus.
Not only will taking these steps prevent you from catching the flu, it will also protect the people around you.
We can help with how to prevent getting the flu after being exposed and how to prevent spreading the flu in your home.
Although the flu virus can be easily spread, there may be certain things you are doing which can put you more at risk of contracting the flu:
Worrying about getting sick can actually make you ill. When we worry too much, we can affect our immune system as stress causes our fight-or-flight response to kick in and our cortisol levels to increase. When there is a threat this could be a helpful response, however, when you are stressed for an extended period of time, these raised cortisol levels can have an adverse effect on your immune system, causing you to be susceptible to illnesses and viruses like the flu.
Drinking alcohol can also put you at risk of getting the flu. If you consume a large amount of alcohol in a short time period, you may not only have a hangover but this can also cause you to end up with a weakened immune system. This affects your ability to fight off viral infections like the flu. Alcohol can also dehydrate you and this can affect the ability of your nose and throat to trap germs and bacteria and get rid of them with the formation of mucus.
If you take antiviral medications as a precaution in order not to catch the flu, you may actually be doing more harm than good. Taking antiviral medications before you are ill causes you to be at risk of the flu as the virus can become resistant to these medications.
Smokers are more susceptible to viral infections as cigarettes weaken the tiny hair-like structures in the lungs and nasal passages that trap and get rid of bacteria and germs. Damaged lungs lead you to be more at risk of suffering complications following exposure to the flu virus.
You can be at risk of catching the influenza virus if you are coming in contact with contaminated surfaces or infected individuals. It is important to wash your hands when you touch surfaces that many people are likely to have touched such as a handrail.
Getting too close
Close contact with people who have the virus through handshakes, hugs or kisses can lead to you being ill. During flu season, you can be more at risk if you are in close physical contact with many people.
You may have been exposed to the flu virus unknowingly through contact with an infected person or through touching contaminated surfaces. In order to prevent the flu after being exposed, you should avoid touching your nose or mouth with your hands. The flu virus is airborne when an infected individual sneezes or coughs but it can enter your body when your hands have been affected and you touch your face.
Wash your hands regularly as you may touch your face without realising. The flu virus lives on hard surfaces for about 24 hours so it is important to adopt the habit of washing your hands regularly, especially during flu season. Lather your hands with soap and warm water, rinse and wipe them dry with a clean towel.
If you feel the need to sneeze or cough, you may automatically reach up to your mouth. If your hand is infected, this can lead to you becoming ill. In order to avoid this, sneeze or cough into a clean tissue and throw the tissue away immediately.
The best way to prevent getting infected during flu season is to get vaccinated if you are in an at risk group. The flu vaccination gives you immunity against strains of the influenza virus for about 6 months. You can also:
To help prevent the flu naturally, you can:
It is important that you not only protect yourself from the flu but protect others by taking measures to stop the flu from spreading. One way to stop the flu from spreading is to stay home if you are ill. Working through an illness puts a strain on your immune system and allows the flu virus to spread to others.
You can also prevent the flu from spreading by:
It can be very worrying when symptoms of the flu appear in children. It’s important to remember that there are many ways to help minimise the effects of the flu.
We have some useful advice and support to help your child recover quickly. We can help with:
When to take your child to the hospital for the flu? How can the flu affect toddlers?
In children, like adults, the flu can have an abrupt onset and symptoms can appear around 2 days following exposure to the influenza virus. The symptoms of flu in children include:
Flu symptoms in toddlers and older children can last up to 14 days, but typically symptoms should subside within a week. Symptoms such as a cough can last up to 3 weeks.
There are many ways to help treat flu symptoms in your child:
You can treat your child at home for the flu unless they become unwell, as below, or you are worried.
Signs you should watch out for that may indicate further complications include:
If your child’s condition does not improve or if you feel they may be getting worse rather than better, you should take your child to see a GP.
If your child has the flu, you can get it too. You can prevent the flu in children and the spread of the virus by taking certain precautions:
Babies are more susceptible to illnesses because their immune system is still developing. When a newborn catches the flu, this can be very worrying as they are unable to communicate how they feel.
There are signs you can look out for to spot if your baby has contracted the influenza virus. We have some helpful advice for parents on how to prevent and manage the flu in babies. We can help with:
What to do when my newborn is exposed to the flu?
If your baby is younger than 3 months, the flu can quickly progress into pneumonia. There are certain symptoms to look out for in babies and newborns to identify if they have contracted the flu virus:
The flu can last in babies for 7 to 14 days. Flu symptoms usually last a week but at times these symptoms can linger up to 2 weeks. You can tell your baby is better when they no longer show any of the symptoms of the flu. It is important to take your child to a GP if you notice more severe symptoms or if you notice your child is not getting better after 2 weeks.
Newborn babies and babies under the age of 2 are susceptible to getting sick with the flu as they do not have a fully developed immune system so they are highly susceptible to viruses and infections. The flu can start in babies by coming into contact with respiratory droplets that contain the influenza virus.
The flu can progress quickly. If you notice these symptoms in your baby, you should seek medical help:
If you notice further symptoms you should seek help from a healthcare professional immediately. These further symptoms can include:
Premature babies are at very high risk of complications following a flu infection. Babies that suffer from chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and blood disorders such as sickle cell disease are also at a high risk of complications. These babies need immediate medical assessment if they become unwell.
If your child is under 12 months old, you should see a doctor to assess their symptoms thoroughly.
You can treat the flu in babies by:
If your baby is younger than 6 months old, they should not be getting the flu vaccine, however, there are other ways to prevent the flu:
A woman’s body goes through a lot of changes when pregnant. One of the changes is a weakening of the immune system. This makes you more susceptible to viral infections such as the flu.
There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your baby from the flu. We have some helpful advice on treatment and prevention during pregnancy. We can help with:
Is the flu vaccine safe when pregnant?
Flu symptoms during pregnancy are similar to the flu symptoms in adults who are not pregnant. These symptoms can include:
You can treat the flu while pregnant by:
You should see a GP if you feel your symptoms are getting worse or have lasted over 2 weeks.
After 12 weeks of being pregnant, safe medications to use during pregnancy include:
You should avoid these medications while pregnant:
If you contract the flu whilst breastfeeding, you should stay away from over-the-counter medicines such as cough syrups. Paracetamol may be safe to take if not in conjunction with other cold and flu medicines. You should speak to your doctor about what is the best option for you. Other flu remedies when breastfeeding includes:
The flu vaccine is safe during pregnancy. It not only immunises you from strains of the influenza virus but antibodies can also be passed on to your child in the womb through the placenta.
A flu vaccine decreases your risk of getting ill from the flu. Pregnant women are at high risk of complications when ill due to a weakened immune system and should take this precaution to avoid the flu. Talk to your GP or pharmacist about getting the flu vaccination. There are mild side effects of the flu vaccine during pregnancy.
Pregnant women are at a high risk of developing complications during pregnancy. This is due to the fact that a pregnant woman’s body is going through a lot of changes. When this happens, the body’s immune system tries to adapt to these changes resulting in a weaker immune system. The body’s weak immune system works to stop the body from rejecting the unborn child in the womb. This makes it harder for the body to fight off infections and makes them more susceptible to complications.
Complications of the flu include:
You should see your doctor if you experience symptoms such as:
If the flu is left untreated or if you already have a chronic health condition, you may be at risk of contracting a more serious illness like pneumonia.
If your flu symptoms have lasted over 2 weeks and seem to be getting worse, it is a good idea to see your GP. We can help with:
What are the complications you can get from the flu? Am I at risk of flu complications?
The people who are most at risk of developing complications or serious illness from the flu include:
You are also more at risk if you have:
Ear infections are common in children and can develop after they have been exposed to the flu virus. An ear infection can occur when the viral infection affects the middle ear and causes inflammation. Some symptoms of ear infections include pain or discomfort in the ear, fussiness in children, pressure in the ear, hearing loss and pus-like drainage.
Sinusitis is another complication which can follow a flu infection. This occurs when the sinus linings become inflamed. This causes a build up of mucus and pressure around the sinuses and can cause a headache. It affects the way mucus is drained into your nose and expelled. Sinusitis can last about two to three weeks. You can treat a sinus infection with warm packs over your face, ibuprofen for the pain and nasal decongestants.
The flu is a respiratory infection and can ultimately make the symptoms of your asthma worse. This is because the influenza virus affects your airways and throat. The flu can also lead to asthma attacks. Some symptoms include coughing, wheezing and tightness of the chest. If you feel your asthma symptoms getting worse, you should speak to your doctor about your asthma action plan so they can let you know how to adjust your medication accordingly.
Pneumonia is one of the most common complications of the flu. It is defined as swelling or inflammation of tissue in the lungs and is often caused by a viral infection. Viral pneumonia is sometimes caused by the flu and is common in young children. Some symptoms of pneumonia include chest pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, rapid heartbeat, loss of appetite, fatigue and confusion. Due to your weakened immune system, you can also develop a secondary bacterial pneumonia. If you think you have either type of pneumonia when you have the flu, you should see your doctor immediately.
It is possible for women who contract the flu when they are pregnant to have premature labour and delivery. Premature birth and preterm labour is when the baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The flu may also be linked to potential problems in the child such as low birth weight. It is important to get the flu vaccine when pregnant in order to protect yourself and your child from the flu.
Bronchitis can sometimes follow the flu. It typically last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Bronchitis is described as the inflammation or swelling of the lining of the bronchi. The bronchi are the air passages between the mouth, nose and lungs. You will be able to tell if you have acute bronchitis brought on by the flu if you have a persistent cough which may produce mucus, wheezing, chest tightening, breathlessness, headaches, blocked nose and sinuses. However, symptoms of bronchitis are similar to those of other respiratory illnesses such as asthma and pneumonia so be sure to go to your GP for an accurate diagnosis, especially if you have any tightness or wheezing.
A viral infection like the flu can also cause complications to your heart such as myocarditis. Myocarditis can cause abnormal heart rhythms as it is an inflammation of the heart muscle. There can be damage to the heart if the inflammation is severe but a lot of people recover from this. People who already have cardiovascular issues may also be at risk of a heart attack due to the flu.
If you have any palpitations or chest pain you must call 999.
Our vision is to change lives with convenient, accessible healthcare. With over 200 private doctor clinics across the UK, you can find your nearest surgery and see a GP in minutes.
Your private GP can help diagnose your symptoms and let you know if you are suffering from the flu or just a common cold. They will also be able to prescribe antiviral medication if needed and advise you on the best methods to relieve your flu symptoms. We can help with:
Where is your nearest doctor surgery? And how can Medicspot help?