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Flu season is back - here are 8 things you really should know

Including how to tell the difference between flu and the common cold.

WINTER IS COMING… or is pretty much here already, sadly, and along with the spate of colds that have cropped up, the dreaded flu is making the rounds, too.

To help you stay as flu-free as possible, we’ve compiled a guide to the flu: how to avoid it, how you know you have it, what to do if you have it and whether you should get the vaccine.

What is flu? How is it different to a cold?

shutterstock_244673965 Shutterstock / Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley Shutterstock / Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley / Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley

Flu is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus which is highly contagious. There tends to be an outbreak every year, usually during winter.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and the flu. However, flu symptoms tend to come on much more rapidly, and are usually accompanied by muscle aches and extreme exhaustion.

Colds usually develop more slowly with a stuffy nose, sneezing and a mild to moderate cough.

How do I protect against it?

shutterstock_171525560 Shutterstock / Image Point Fr Shutterstock / Image Point Fr / Image Point Fr

Flu is highly infectious and is often spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. A person with the virus can transmit it for one or two days before symptoms occur, and for up to a week after first getting symptoms.

The only pre-emptive measure against the flu is the flu vaccine. (This year’s vaccine is expected to be around 60% effective.)

What do I do if I get the flu?

shutterstock_183131108 Shutterstock / Halfpoint Shutterstock / Halfpoint / Halfpoint

Most healthy people manage to get over the flu within a week, some even more quickly.

However, severe cases can cause serious illness or even death – particularly if you are very young, elderly, or otherwise in an at-risk category. Between 200 and 500 people die from influenza in Ireland each winter.

If you have severe flu symptoms, or are in a high-risk group, you should contact your GP by phone. For most people with mild to moderate symptoms, the best thing is to stay at home and rest. Don’t go to work, school or college while sick.

Drink plenty of fluids, use tissues and wash your hands regularly to help avoid spreading flu to others.

Do I need a flu vaccine?

shutterstock_97179233 Shutterstock / Dmitry Lobanov Shutterstock / Dmitry Lobanov / Dmitry Lobanov

If you’re in one of the following at-risk groups, vaccination is strongly recommended:

  • Anyone aged 65 and over
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone over the age of six months with a long-term health condition such as chronic heart disease, liver disease, renal failure, respiratory disease, diabetes mellitus and lots more. Full list here.
  • Children (again over the age of six months) who have any condition affecting lung function, especially those attending special schools/day centres with cerebral palsy or an intellectual disability.
  • Children over the age of six months on long-term aspirin therapy
  • Healthcare workers
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-stay institutions
  • Carers of those in at-risk groups
  • People in regular contact with pigs, poultry or water fowl

How does the flu vaccine work?

shutterstock_235884964 Shutterstock / Africa Studio Shutterstock / Africa Studio / Africa Studio

The vaccine helps a person’s immune system to produce antibodies to the flu virus – meaning when you come into contact with the virus, the antibodies will attack it.

This year’s flu vaccine contains three strains of flu that are likely to be the most common this season, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These are:

  • A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09 – like strain (A/California/7/2009,   NYMC X-179A)
  • A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2) – like strain (A/Hong Kong/4801/2014, NYMC X-263B) -
  • B/Brisbane/60/2008 – like strain (B/Brisbane/60/2008, wild type)

Are there any risks?

shutterstock_103159937 Shutterstock / Maksim Shmeljov Shutterstock / Maksim Shmeljov / Maksim Shmeljov

Flu vaccines have been in operation for 60 years, and millions of people have received them. Reactions to the flu vaccine tend to be mild and serious side effects are very rare.

Can I get the flu from the flu vaccine?

shutterstock_118647259 Shutterstock / Subbotina Anna Shutterstock / Subbotina Anna / Subbotina Anna

Nope – the vaccine contains killed or inactive viruses, so you can’t get the flu from it. It will take between 10 and 14 days to start protecting against the flu though.

Where do I get the vaccine?

shutterstock_100422550 Shutterstock / lenetstan Shutterstock / lenetstan / lenetstan

If you’re over 18 you can go to your GP or pharmacist. If you’re under 18 you should go to your GP.

The vaccine is free for anyone in an at-risk group. Those without a Medical Card or GP Visit Card may be charged a consultation fee for the administration of the vaccine.

If you’re over 65, pregnant, have a chronic illness or are part of any other at-risk group you should speak to your GP or pharmacist about getting the flu vaccine. You can find out more at the HSE Flu Vaccination website

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