Flu (influenza) is a highly infectious disease of the airways. It is caused by the influenza virus. Flu and cold virus generally effect the respiratory tract. The differance between a cold and the flu is that a cold often will make you feel not so great over or shorter peoiod of time. Most irriataions include sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose. However the flu virus tends to be much worse and the symptoms can make it difficult to get through a normal day. Most people experience sever fatigue, swelling in the throat, high feaver, or headaches.
There are many strains of influenza virus, but all produce more or less the same symptoms. Flu is most common in the autumn and winter months, with a different strain of the virus responsible each year. When this affects particularly large numbers of people at the same time, it’s classified as a flu epidemic.
Flu is not a cold
Flu is sometimes confused with the common cold. This is because some of the symptoms are similar. However, colds are caused by different viruses altogether. The course of the disease is also different: the flu usually sets in very quickly, a cold more gradually. And flu causes fever, while most colds don’t.
Groups at risk
Flu usually passes of its own accord, with no long-term ill effects. But some groups are at risk of more serious complications. They include the elderly and people with certain chronic medical conditions. These groups can get an annual flu jab (vaccination) to reduce their chance of catching the condition, or make it less serious.
You can recognise the flu from the following symptoms:
- Cold shivers
- Sore throat and a dry cough
- Muscle pain, especially in your limbs
- Severe fatigue (tiredness)
These symptoms often appear suddenly and make you very ill. Your temperature can reach 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) or more within 12 hours, and the fever usually lasts three to five days. It can take between one and three weeks to recover fully.
If you’ve caught a cold, the first thing you usually notice is a sore throat. This gets worse gradually. Adults hardly ever develop a fever. Generally, only the upper airways are affected: the nose, throat and sinuses. They are inflamed, causing coughing (with mucus), a runny nose and headaches. Only very young children may need hospital treatment for a cold.
High-risk groups and complications
As mentioned above, the flu can have more serious complications for some groups.
- Inflammation of the ear
- Severe tightness of the chest
- Heart problems, such as inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis)
- Babies and infants
- Pregnant women
- The over-60s
- People with chronic heart, lung, liver and kidney conditions
- People with diabetes
- People with a weakened immune system, due to disease, medical treatment, the use of certain medicines and so on
How do you catch the flu?
The influenza virus which causes flu is found in droplets of saliva, mucus and other bodily fluids spread by those infected. You’re contagious from the day before you develop symptoms until five days afterwards. During that time you can spread the virus by coughing, sneezing and even talking and breathing. Coughs and sneezes can carry the virus as far as two metres. This makes it easy to catch, especially in crowded, poorly ventilated enclosed spaces.
Infection by contact
You can also catch the flu from the hands of an infected person or a contaminated object like a telephone, a glass or a door handle. The virus can survive on these surfaces for up to four hours. You only become infected if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after this contact, so good hygiene can prevent this form of transmission.
Once you’re infected, it takes up to seven days for symptoms to appear. And not everyone who catches the virus develops these.
The only way to prevent flu is through vaccination: the flu jab or flu shot. The vaccine contains particles of dead virus. These stimulate your body to produce antibodies, which also attack and destroy or weaken the living virus if you catch it. There’s no guarantee that vaccination will prevent you developing flu, but it should make you less ill and reduce the chance of complications occurring.
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Last updated on October 13, 2016.