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Flu is an infection of the upper respiratory tract which affects up to 1 billion people worldwide every year

What is flu?

Flu, shortened from influenza, is an infection of the upper respiratory system which is extremely contagious. Although the common cold and flu share similar symptoms, they are quite different infections. Flu is caused by a specific group of viruses known as the influenza virus whereas colds can be caused by over 200 viruses.

There are a number of different strains of flu, such as swine flu and avian flu (also known as bird flu), with more forming as the virus mutates. This is why people continue to come down with the flu each year and that there is the need to renew the flu vaccination each winter.

The flu virus can be spread from one person to the next from day one and before symptoms appear. Hence, it is possible to spread the flu before one notices symptoms.

Viruses causing the flu

Flu is caused by the influenza virus. There are three main types of this virus simply known as A, B and C:

  • Influenza virus type A – this is the most common type and causes annual outbreaks of flu
  • Influenza virus type B – this is less common, causing outbreaks every three to five years
  • Influenza virus type C – this type of virus presents the mildest symptoms, often similar to those of a cold. 

Flu viruses mutate every year. This means that immunity developed to one type of virus will be unlikely to protect you the following year as the virus changes.

Symptoms of flu

You can be infected with a flu virus for up to two days before symptoms appear. Unlike a cold, when flu symptoms appear, they arrive quickly and often unexpectedly.

Flu symptoms generally follow a specific pattern, starting with a fever, excessive sweating or night sweats and aching muscles, developing into cold-like symptoms and leaving you feeling fatigued for a week or more after the other symptoms have disappeared.

In some people with a weakened immune system, flu symptoms can be more severe with complications and it is important to seek medical attention.

Flu symptoms overlap with symptoms of the common cold. Severe symptoms of cold are often interpreted as flu. In reality, it is difficult to tell the difference between a cold and flu without medical tests to identify the viral cause.

Flu treatment

There is not a specific cure for flu. Antibiotics have no effect as they act on bacteria, not viruses.

However, there is a range of treatments which will help with the symptoms of flu, and speed up recovery. These include:

  • Conventional medicines – these range from painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen to antiviral drugs (mainly oseltamivir and zanamivir)
  • Herbal remedies – many people look for a herbal remedy such as Echinacea to strengthen their immune system
  • Home remedies – there is a variety of remedies for flu which can be found in your kitchen cupboard. An example is a cup of tea which will keep you hydrated, as well as the warmth soothing your throat, with the steam clearing a blocked nose.

Preventing flu

There are measures you can take to prevent picking up flu infections. The flu jab (flu vaccination) is usually advised by doctors for certain groups of people, such as the over 65s, pregnant women and those who have a weaker immune system.

As well as this, there are certain lifestyle steps which you can employ to reduce your chances of getting the flu.

Herbal remedies

Many people look for herbal remedies to treat their flu symptoms. These include:

  • Echinacea – this is a popular herb used for treating symptoms of colds and flu. It works by strengthening the immune system, increasing the body’s resistance to infection.
  • Echinacea has been shown in research to reduce the severity and number of days of infection if taken while suffering from flu symptoms
  • There is a variety of herbal cough syrups such as those which include extracts of fresh spruce for dry or tickly coughs, and others which combine ivy and thyme for cough and bronchial congestion.
  • Herbal nasal sprays have an advantage over conventional medicine nasal sprays, as the body is less likely to be affected by rebound congestion. 

Home remedies

There are a variety of measures to employ at home which will help relieve mild to moderate flu symptoms:

  • Drink plenty – water will keep you hydrated and will help make your symptoms feel better. Hot drinks are good for clearing the congestion of a blocked nose and soothing your throat. Alcohol is inadvisable as it can cause dehydration
  • Rest – if you can’t face getting out of bed and going to work, then your body may be telling you something. If you get enough rest, this will help your immune system fight the infection. Rushing about when you are sick will do you no favours and will increase your risk of a secondary infection.
  • Take a steamy bath or shower – the steam will help clear your nasal passages
  • Keep a proper sleep routine – your immune system won’t thank you if you don’t keep to a regular system, and this will make it harder to fight the infection. If you are struggling to sleep at night because of congestion, try keeping your head elevated with pillows.


When to see the doctor

In many cases, flu is unpleasant while it lasts but does not require medical attention to get better. However, in some cases it is advisable to see a doctor.

It is important to remember that the flu is not just a bad cold but has the potential to be a serious health risk particularly among children, the elderly and those with an underlying health condition.

If you experience severe or persistent symptoms or develop a complication of the flu such as a persistent cough or severe fever, it may be necessary to go to the doctor. If you are worried about your condition, it is always important to seek medical attention.