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 is spread.
Catching seasonal flu
The flu virus is carried and spread in the droplets expelled 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 6ft from the nose or mouth. They hang suspended 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 will 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 65.
For adults, the flu jab is administered as 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.
The vaccine is free on the NHS to anyone who is particularly at risk from the flu (e.g. the over-65s, pregnant women, anyone with a compromised immune system). As we have outlined here it is recommended that the family members of people in at-risk groups receive the flu vaccine.
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 practise flu prevention techniques; even if you have been vaccinated against certain strains, you may still be susceptible to others.
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.
To learn more about the flu visit our online flu clinic. Here, you can book an appointment to receive the flu vaccine at your nearest LloydsPharmacy.