What is the Flu?

Think you might have the flu? Here's what you need to know.

Influenza, better known as the flu, is a highly contagious viral infection spread by coughing, sneezing and talking. While congestion, muscle aches, fatigue, a sore throat and a cough are common symptoms, the flu can also cause a range of potentially severe complications. In fact, it’s a contributing factor in more than 3,000 deaths in Australia each year.

So how is the flu spread and what can you do to protect yourself against this nasty virus? Read on to find out.

What is the flu?

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that causes widespread illness throughout Australia and around the world each year. The virus spreads through contact with the fluids of an infected person, such as the fluid they release into the air when they talk, cough or sneeze. However, you can also pick up flu germs by touching an infected object. In Australia, flu season typically runs from May to October. New strains of the virus appear often.

Many people mistakenly confuse the flu with the common cold. However, the two are actually different winter ailments. Colds are viral infections caused by the adenovirus or coronavirus, although they can also cause congestion, a runny nose and a sore throat. The symptoms of colds are much less severe and come on slower than flu symptoms, making them a nuisance rather than a potentially deadly threat.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms tend to appear very quickly and can hang around for several weeks. The flu virus produces a long list of telltale signs and symptoms, including the following:

  • The sudden appearance of a high fever
  • A dry cough, potentially accompanied by wheezing and chest tightness
  • Body aches and pains, particularly in the head, lower back and legs
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • A sore throat
  • A runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Chills and sweating
  • Gastrointestinal problems

If you’ve been infected with the influenza virus, you will most likely be contagious from around 24 hours before symptoms first appear until seven days after symptoms begin. However, it’s possible to remain contagious for as long as 10 days after symptoms first appear, especially children or those with weakened immune systems.

How do I treat the flu?

The flu is a virus and cannot be treated by antibiotics. Most people are actually able to treat themselves for the flu at home without needing to visit a doctor. The following are some home treatment options:

  • Take over-the-counter painkillers to alleviate headaches and body pains.
  • Use decongestants to help you breathe and feel better.
  • Suck sugar-free lollies or lozenges to soothe a sore throat.
  • Use a hot water bottle or a warm bath to relieve muscle pain.
  • Get plenty of bed rest.

  • Keep warm.
  • Consume adequate fluids to ensure that you stay hydrated.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking.
  • Eat if possible.
  • Antivial medications.

Is there any way I can prevent getting the flu?

You can also take a few simple steps to prevent the spread of the flu:

  • Get vaccinated every year.
  • Stay at home and avoid other people where possible.
  • Avoid sharing eating utensils and dishes.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough.
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.

Did you know?

  • There are three different strains of influenza: A, B and C. A and B cause the majority of illnesses in Australia.
  • Only influenza A has caused pandemics.
  • Each year, the flu causes an estimated 13,500 hospitalisations and more than 3,000 deaths among Australians aged 50 years and over.
  • The highest rates of hospitalisation for influenza occur among the elderly and children under five years of age.
  • The 20th century saw three flu pandemics: the 1918 Spanish flu, the 1957-58 Asian flu and the 1968-70 Hong Kong flu.
  • The 21st century has so far experienced one pandemic: the 2009 swine flu.

Need health insurance?

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment is not an endorsement and does not imply its appropriateness for your circumstances. Our information is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional and you should not rely on this general information for diagnosis or answers for your particular circumstances. Instead seek advice from a registered health care professional. This content has been prepared for Australian audiences and was accurate at the time of publication but, over time, the currency and completeness of the published material may change.

Picture: Shutterstock

Tim Falk

A writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians compare and find the right products. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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