ICYMI winter has officially arrived and with it, snotty noses, disgusting coughs and non-stop sneezing. Yep, the flu is in town too. But how much do you really know about this common viral infection? We spoke to the experts to find out the facts (and clear up some major misconceptions) about this highly contagious illness.
1. The flu is different to a cold
The flu is caused by a completely different virus to the common cold and in general, flu symptoms are a lot worse than cold symptoms.
“They both can share very similar symptoms of a sore throat, blocked nose, sneezing and cough, but when you wake up in the morning with that feverish, achy, “I can’t move a muscle” feeling – you most likely have the flu,” says Feras Karem, Pharmacist and Managing Director of Pharmacy 4 Less.
“Although they share very similar characteristics, headache, fever and body aches and pains are more commonly associated with the flu.”
You might also notice symptoms like fatigue and exhaustion.
2. Antibiotics won’t help
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to treating the flu is using an antibiotic.
“Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, whereas the flu is associated with a viral infection. It’s like using the wrong key on a lock – it just won’t work,” Feras says.
Misuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organisation says is one of the biggest threats to global health. A growing number of common infections are becoming harder to cure as the common treatments become ineffective.
Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a medical professional and you should never demand antibiotics if your doctor says you don’t need them.
When it comes to treating the flu, rest and recuperation is the best option.
3. Prevention is key
Professor Kristine Macartney, paediatrician and Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, says that the vaccine is the best tool we have to reduce the risk of getting the flu.
“On average, getting a vaccine cuts your chance of getting ill from the flu by about half,” she says.
The vaccine isn’t just for the individual, it also helps the entire community through herd immunity. This is when the spread of the flu is reduced significantly due to a high proportion of people within the community being immunised against it.
“If there are high levels of vaccination in the community this can help to reduce the spread of the virus, including to those with weak immune systems who don't respond well to vaccination or who are at more risk from the disease,” Kristine says.
4. The flu vaccine won’t make you sick
“The most common misconception we hear from our patients is ‘I got sick from the flu vaccine’,” Feras says. “The flu vaccine contains an inactivated virus, which is basically a virus that has been killed. Your body cannot get sick from a dead virus, as the virus is unable to infect your body and reproduce.”
The vaccine triggers your body to create an immune response to the strain of flu virus it features so that the next time it encounters it, your body can fight back quicker. The fatigue you might feel is often an early immune response reacting to a foreign substance entering the body.
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5. The flu can be fatal
Kristine says that many people believe that being fit and healthy will protect them from getting the flu.
“More than half all children and around half of all adults hospitalised with influenza each year were completely fit and healthy before the infection landed them in hospital,” she explains. “While people who are frail, elderly or have medical conditions are more at risk from the flu, the flu can strike down healthy people. All flu complications, for example, pneumonia, seizures, brain inflammation (encephalitis), and death can affect healthy people."
It is estimated that flu contributes to over 3,000 deaths in Australia each year.
“As a doctor who cares for hospitalised flu patients, it’s remarkable how many times patients and/or their parents have said ‘I never realised the flu could be this bad’.”