How is the flu spread and how do you catch it?
In the UK, flu season begins in late autumn and runs throughout the winter. Though you can catch the flu at any time of the year, you are most at risk during the colder months. Here we explain how the flu is spread and how you catch it.
Most people who catch the flu will experience unpleasant symptoms such as a fever, headache, aches and pains, and fatigue for one or two weeks before recovering fully.
However, sometimes the flu can lead to serious complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The flu can worsen pre-existing health conditions, and lead to dangerous complications in pregnant women.
Keeping yourself protected from flu is not only beneficial for your health, it will also help to protect any people around you for whom the flu poses more of a risk. The first step in protecting yourself and your loved ones from the flu is understanding how it's spread.
Catching seasonal flu
The flu virus is carried and spread in the droplets released from the nose or mouth in coughs and sneezes. When an infected person sneezes or coughs and doesn’t cover their nose or mouth, these droplets come into contact with that person’s surroundings.
Droplets typically travel for up to six feet from the nose or mouth. They hang in the air before settling on surfaces. If the infected person sneezes or coughs into their hand, they can contaminate surfaces by touching them.
If you are standing close to someone when they sneeze or cough, there’s a high risk that you'll inhale some of these droplets and become sick. However, this is not the only route of transmission.
The flu virus can survive outside of the body for up to 24 hours, which means you risk catching the flu when you touch contaminated surfaces. Surfaces which are easily contaminated with the flu virus include door handles, telephones, keyboards, and remote controls. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your nose or mouth, you could become infected.
Avoiding seasonal flu
The best way to avoid catching seasonal flu is to get the flu jab - in particular for those with pre-existing health conditions, pregnant or are over 50.
For adults, the flu jab is a single injection (children usually receive the vaccine in the form of a nasal spray). To be properly protected during the flu season you should ideally receive the vaccine in the autumn, although it’s better to receive it later than not at all.
You're eligible for a free NHS flu vaccine if you:
- are 50 and over (including those who'll be 50 by 31 March 2022)
- have certain health conditions
- are pregnant
- are in long-stay residential care
- receive a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick
- live with someone who is more likely to get infections (such as someone who has HIV, has had a transplant or is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis)
- frontline health or social care workers
If you fall into one of these categories, you can book a free flu jab through LloydsPharmacy. If you're not eligible, you can pay to get a flu jab from LloydsPharmacy. Find our more by visiting the LloydsPharmacy flu vaccine service page.
Each winter, different flu viruses become prevalent. In response to this, a new flu vaccine is created every single year. This means that, to stay protected, you should get the flu vaccine annually.
Because there are many different strains of seasonal flu, you should still try to prevent catching the flu, even if you've had the vaccine.
During flu season you should get into the habit of washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water, particularly after spending time amongst large groups of people, or having contact with someone who is sick.
You should also keep shared surfaces (such as door handles and telephones) clean, and avoid sharing food, crockery, cutlery, or towels with any people who have the flu.
If you contract the flu:
- You may need time off work.
- Limit your contact with other people as you could pass the virus onto others
- Always sneeze and cough into a tissue and dispose of the tissue immediately
- Visit your GP if your symptoms don’t improve within a week or get significantly worse
At this time of year, many people can become sick with ‘gastric flu’. This is a common, but misleading, label for gastroenteritis. The main symptoms of gastroenteritis are diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and a high temperature.
Despite the common nickname, this condition is not caused by the flu virus. Gastroenteritis is commonly caused by norovirus, which, like the flu, is more prevalent during the winter. You can catch norovirus by coming into contact with particles from the vomit or faeces of an infected person.
To avoid contracting ‘gastric flu’ you should wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, disinfect surfaces that could be contaminated and keep bedding and toilets clean. If you become sick, you should take time off work and away from social events, practise good hygiene, and be cautious about close contact with other people.