Seven facts you need to know about the flu

By Hudson Institute communications. Reviewed by Associate Professor Michelle Tate

Influenza virus. Photo Credit: C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC
Influenza virus. Photo Credit: C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC

The Australian 2019 flu season has been dubbed a horror season, with many people wanting to know how they can best protect themselves and their families. Influenza expert Dr Michelle Tate answers frequently asked questions about the flu and addresses misconceptions that often come up in conversation during the winter months.

1. Do I have the flu or just a bad cold?

If you have a runny nose, sore throat and mild to moderate discomfort it’s likely that you have the common cold, which is caused by Rhinovirus.

If you are struck by a sudden fever, headache, chills, and fatigue or weakness you may have the flu, which is caused by influenza virus. Unlike a cold, the flu is very debilitating, which is likely to make you stay in bed for several days.

2. I have the flu – what do I do?

If you have the flu, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. Many people think that there is nothing medically available to treat the flu. However, doctors can prescribe anti-viral drugs that can make the infection milder and shorten the time you are sick – if taken within the first two days following the onset of symptoms.

You should also try to limit the spread of the virus to family and those around you by

  • Limiting your contact with other family members for at least 24 hours after fever subsides
  • Covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and disposing
    of tissues
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

3. Can getting vaccinated give you the flu?

The vaccine does not contain live virus but rather viral proteins that have been purified – this means you cannot get the flu as a result of vaccination. Following vaccination, your immune response will respond to the viral proteins, which can make you feel tired.

4. Is it worthwhile getting the flu vaccine?

The influenza vaccine is currently our most effective strategy to protect against the flu. The most at risk are those with an impaired immune system, the young, old, pregnant and those with underlying heart and lung conditions.

However, it can also affect healthy people, including fit and healthy adults and teenagers. Because of this, all individuals and families should consider getting the flu injection. Getting vaccinated can also help protect those around you.

The virus mutates so quickly that we need to be vaccinated every year. Every year the vaccine is formulated based on what strains are predicted to predominate, so last year’s vaccine may not protect you against the current strains. In addition, your immune response from vaccination declines over time so yearly vaccination is needed as a boost for optimal protection.

This year the influenza vaccine contains proteins from four different strains; a type A H3N2, a type A H1N1 and two different type Bs.

Dr Michelle Tate talks about common misconceptions around the flu and flu vaccine.
Dr Michelle Tate

5. When is the best time to get the flu shot?

In Australia, the flu season normally peaks in August. This year data shows an early sharp increase in the number of cases in May. Following vaccination, your immune system recognises the viral proteins and builds up your immunity. This can take several weeks so it is best to get vaccinated every year as early as possible before the peak season for optimal protection.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it is never too late to get vaccinated – especially if you plan to travel overseas.

6. Why do people die from the flu?

While our immune system is important for fighting off infections, if the response is not well controlled it can cause damage to tissues and organs which can be fatal. Severe influenza virus infections are associated with an overwhelming reaction by the immune system, resulting in what is called a ‘cytokine storm’.

It is often an overreaction of the immune system rather than the direct effects of the virus itself that causes symptoms such as fever and sometimes fatal disease, such as multi-organ failure.

People often present to hospital with severe flu symptoms five days after the onset of symptoms and current anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu are largely ineffective by this point.

There are currently no effective treatments for severe influenza infections and scientists are currently working to discover new drugs that can dampen damaging immune responses.

Visiting the doctor as early as possible and keeping up with yearly vaccinations, particularly if you are most at risk (i.e. have an impaired immune system or underlying lung disease such as asthma), are the best strategies to avoid developing severe infections.

7. Apart from vaccination, what can I do protect myself and my family?

  • Seek medical attention as early as possible if a family member becomes unwell
  • Avoid contact with sick people
  • Wash your hands often
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces.

MORE | Could flu deaths be relegated to history? 

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