What is flu? Is it ever fatal? Who is most vulnerable? What can we do to avoid getting it? Should we be worried about a flu pandemic?
Is flu is just a miserable short term inconvenience? For most people, most years the answer is yes. However, even in a normal year vulnerable people, like the elderly, die from flu and its complications, such as pneumonia – possibly as many as 8,000 a year.
Then there are the exceptional years. 2 million people worldwide died from Asian Flu in 1957 and about 1 million from Hong Kong Flu in 1968.
So whether you’d like to avoid a week in bed feeling sorry for yourself, or something potentially more serious, it is probably worth finding out more about flu, what causes it and what you can do to prevent it.
What is flu?
Flu is passed on when people breathe in liquid droplets containing the influenza virus which have been sneezed or coughed into the air by people or when they touch objects contaminated with the virus.
Who is most at risk of complications from flu?
According to the NHS those most at risk are:
- older people (over 65)
- people with lowered immunity as a result of disease or medical treatment
- people with underlying heart or respiratory complaints (such as asthma and COPD)
- patients with diabetes, serious kidney or liver diseases or who have had a stroke.
Other at risk-groups are children under 5 years, so it is important to follow hygiene when interacting with them; pregnant women; and people in nursing homes and other long-term health facilities.
What precautions can we take?
Three main ways to avoid getting flu are to:
1. Keep your immune system strong to help it fight the flu virus – by eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, getting enough rest and relaxation and not smoking.
2. Limit your contact with the flu virus
- Limit contact with surfaces other people have touched, at home, at work and when travelling (including door handles).
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water after touching such surfaces and especially before eating. If soap and water aren’t available use an alcohol hand gel.
- Keep your hands away from your nose and mouth.
- If you’re on public transport and someone near you is coughing and sneezing without covering their nose and mouth then move away.
“Computer keyboards, telephones, doorknobs, pens that are given to you when you sign for a credit card purchase or in a doctor’s office - all of these are surfaces that have great potential for harbouring germs,”
Neil Schachter, MD, Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.
3. Use a humidifier in your bedroom in winter - Studies suggest it is not actually the cold of winter that causes the increases in flu but the lowered humidity. So using a humidifier in bedrooms in the winter may help provide some protection against flu by reducing the amount of time the flu virus can survive indoors.
If you do get flu please avoid spreading the virus to other people –
- Don’t travel, socialise or go to work when you have flu
- Use a handkerchief to trap coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands often and well so you don’t leave the virus on door handles or anything else other people might touch
Is the flu vaccination useful?
‘Influenza vaccines have a very modest effect in reducing influenza symptoms and working days lost in the general population, including pregnant women.’ That’s the conclusion from a 2014 review of the evidence in Cochrane systematic reviews (seen as providing particularly reliable reviews of research evidence). One reason for this is that vaccinations are usually against type A and B influenza, which represent only about 10% of circulating flu and flu like viruses, according to Cochrane.
However, the UK government recommends the flu vaccination. It advises that this is usually around 50% effective against circulatng influenza A and B strains in any one year - with an average of 34% for 2014/2015.
It seems that the flu vaccination can’t guarantee to protect you against all strains of flu but, where the vaccine matches the predominant strain in a given year, it can have some protective effect – and may be particularly helpful for those most at risk.
What about Vitamin C, Echinacea, Green Tea and other Complementary Health Remedies?
The US government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has reviewed the available research findings and concludes, ‘There is no conclusive evidence that any complementary health practice is useful for flu.‘
What should we do if we get flu?
The best action you can take, if you’re not in a high risk category, is to:
- Stay at home and rest
- Keep warm
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
Over the counter remedies (to bring down your temperature, clear a stuffy nose and/or soothe a cough) are seen by doctors as likely to relieve uncomfortable symptoms but not shorten how long you have the flu. As always, read the label to check for possible side effects.
If you’re in a high risk group (as described earlier in this article) or feel particularly unwell then check with your doctor.
Should we be worried about a Flu Pandemic caused by animal or bird flu affecting humans?
A large scale, worldwide flu pandemic caused by animal or bird flu is still very much a theoretical possibility i.e. it may never happen. However the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases comments that the risk, however small, ‘has caused great concern among public health officials and provided a major incentive to accelerate developing a human vaccine for avian influenza.‘
Prevention is better than cure, so to reduce the risk of catching flu:
- Keep your immune system strong
- Limit contact with surfaces other people have touched
- Wash your hands before eating
- Avoid other people’s coughs and sneezes
- Consider a flu vaccination
- Use a humidifier in your bedroom in winter
Reviewed and updated October 2015 by Christiane Hahn and Michael Baber. Next review date September 2019.