Flu - All you need to know about flu
All you need to know about flu
All you need to know about flu
The winter months invariably bring a range of nasties with them. As the weather gets colder, our immune systems appear more vulnerable and colds and infection soon take hold.
Flu is one of the main illnesses to peak in winter, and it can be one of the more dangerous, too. It's infectious and in some circumstances, fatal, especially for the young, elderly and those with chronic conditions, such as asthma.
Here we take an in-depth look at what flu is and the best ways of avoiding, and treating it.
What is the flu
Flu, or influenza is not, as many people believe, the common cold. It's a respiratory illness caused by a virus, that makes people feel far worse than just the ordinary cold.
Symptoms include a sudden fever, shivering, headache, dry cough, sore throat and aching muscles and joints, whereas a cold is characterised by a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation.
A good rule to remember is that a cold affects the upper half of your body but flu will have an effect throughout your entire body.
Flu can also lead to serious illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
The virus is spread simply through the tiny droplets in our breath. It is thought that the rates of flu increase in winter months because people are congregated inside and therefore more prone to picking up each other's germs.
How to avoid the flu
The best way to avoid catching the flu is to make sure your immune system is in peak condition.
professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, recommends building up the immune system by eating a balanced diet and taking mild exercise.
"Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables to ensure you get enough vitamin C. Even a small deficiency in vitamin C has been linked to an increased severity of respiratory infections," he says.
You can also take a vitamin C supplement to boost your intake. Alternative health experts advise taking between 1.5 to 4 grams of vitamin C at the very first signs of a cold.
Exercise will boost your immune system as it encourages fresh blood to be pumped around your body. This brings more oxygen and a fresh supply of nutrients to different parts of the body, helping them ward off infections.
Other supplements strongly recommended are zinc and echinacea. Echinacea works by increasing the number of white blood cells in the body that fight off germs and stop viruses from spreading.
It may also raise the production of interferon, a protein that prevents the virus from reproducing in cells, killing off the infection.
The most effective way to take zinc is in lozenges. Zinc works as an antioxidant in the body, fighting off harmful chemicals that can speed up the ageing process or trigger a serious medical condition. Studies have shown that adults who took zinc lozenges had less severe symptoms and cut the time they were suffering with flu-like symptoms.
Scientists recommend taking up to 10 lozenges a day that contain between 15 - 25 milligrammes (mg) of zinc gluconate until your symptoms have disappeared.
Echinacea tinctures are available from good health food shops and chemists. You should take three to four drops in water every two hours at the beginning of a cold and then three to four times a day for the next two weeks.
What about the flu vaccine
The young and the elderly, along with asthmatics and those in poor health, are the most vulnerable to flu infection, and it is in these groups that the virus can lead to serious infection.
The Department of Health recommends all people aged 65 and over and those with chronic conditions(such as asthma, heart disease and kidney disease) have the flu vaccine.
The best time of year to have the jab is between September and November as it gives your body enough time to build up enough antibodies before the winter flu season.
Healthy people are usually advised against having the vaccine, as the virus is not normally life-threatening and the occasional bout will actually strengthen your immune system.
What should you do if you get flu
"It is not worth going to your doctor as there is nothing they can do about flu," says professor Eccles. "There is no point asking for antibiotics as they only work on bacteria. Flu is a virus."
He recommends treating your aches and pains with paracetmol or aspirin, both easily available from your local pharmacist. patients should stay in bed until the symptoms disappear and drink plenty of fluids. This will help your body sweat out the virus and will stop you getting dehydrated.
You could also try drinking hot drinks or eating a spicy curry. "Hot drinks promote mucus," says professor Eccles. "Mucus traps the virus which prevents it from spreading." Curries also promote the production of mucus and some spices - like ginger and garlic - are well known for their anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
Garlic contains a therapeutic ingredient called allicin, which is produced when raw garlic is crushed. Allicin encourages white blood cells to reproduce which boosts your body's defence system. Unfortunately allicin is destroyed when garlic is cooked so experts recommend eating half a clove of raw garlic to get the full benefit. If you can't stomach it, garlic tablets are available from most major chemists.
The good news is once you have had flu, you gain a life-long immunity from that virus for life. The only problem is flu viruses tend to mutate into new versions every year in order to survive, so you will have to start all over again next winter.