Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies

Continue

Navigation

Pandemic flu

A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of a disease that affects many people in different countries. An influenza, or flu, pandemic happens when a new strain of flu virus spreads easily and quickly across the world.

A flu virus is classed as a pandemic when:

  • a new strain of the flu virus develops
  • most people have no immunity against the virus – this means they may not be able to fight the infection
  • humans are affected and can pass the flu virus on to others
  • the virus spreads quickly and easily around the world

An epidemic is when more people are affected by a disease than usual. A pandemic is a worldwide epidemic.

Pandemic flu is similar to seasonal flu – the normal type of flu that tends to happen at around the same time every year – but the symptoms can be more severe. This is because few people will be able to fight off the infection easily, as it’s significantly different to previous forms of flu they have had.

More people are infected with the flu virus during a pandemic than are affected by seasonal flu. Seasonal flu tends to affect people in the winter, from October to May, but pandemic flu can happen at any time of the year.

In the 20th century, there have been several flu pandemics. The Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 and 1919 killed millions of people around the world. In 2009, there was a flu pandemic of the H1N1 flu virus (swine flu). It was the first pandemic for 40 years.

It's difficult to predict when a pandemic will happen, which virus might cause it or how many people might be affected. Pandemic flu can affect anyone, even the fit and healthy.

Read more Close

Details

  • Symptoms Symptoms of pandemic flu

    When you catch flu, it usually takes two to three days for your symptoms to show.

    Pandemic flu usually causes the same type of symptoms as seasonal flu. Flu viruses grow in the soft, warm surfaces of your nose, throat, sinuses, airways and lungs, so this is where you usually get the symptoms. The main symptoms are:

    • a fever (high temperature between 39ºC and 40ºC)
    • a blocked or runny nose
    • sneezing
    • headache
    • sore throat
    • cough
    • chills
    • aching muscles
    • feeling tired

    Symptoms usually last for about a week, but you may feel tired for a few weeks.

    If you think you have developed the symptoms of flu during a pandemic, you may be advised not to see your GP. However, if you're pregnant or have other health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease, you should contact your GP. Follow advice from the Department of Health about what to do in the event of a pandemic.

    Private GP Service

    Got a health worry? Discuss it with a Bupa GP. Wherever possible we aim to get you an appointment the next day.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of pandemic flu

    You won't usually need to see your GP if you have symptoms of flu during a flu pandemic. If your symptoms get worse or last longer than a week, or if you have a medical condition that may make flu worse, you should contact your GP for advice.

  • Treatment Treatment of pandemic flu

    Self-help

    If you have flu, you shouldn't visit your GP unless your symptoms get worse. There are a number of things you can do at home to help reduce your symptoms.

    • Drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
    • Stay at home and rest.
    • Take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen.

    Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. If your child is under 16 years old, don’t give him or her aspirin or any medicines containing aspirin.

    Medicines

    Antiviral medicines are sometimes used to treat flu during a pandemic. However, until a flu pandemic starts, doctors can't be sure that antiviral medicines will work with that particular flu virus.

    Antiviral medicines can't stop you getting flu, but they may reduce your symptoms and the length of time you’re ill. Antiviral medicines work best if you take them within 48 hours of your symptoms starting.

    Antiviral medicines are usually only given to people who are at risk of severe illness if they catch flu, or to healthcare workers who care for those who are ill. Antibiotics won't help with flu symptoms, as they only work on bacterial infections. They might be used to help prevent complications from secondary bacterial infections, such as bacterial pneumonia.

  • Private GP appointments

    With our GP services, we aim to give you an appointment the next day, subject to availability. Find out more today.

  • Causes Causes of pandemic flu

    The proteins that make up the flu virus are constantly changing (mutating). A flu pandemic can occur if there is a more dramatic change to the flu virus than is usually seen every year. This can happen if there is a mix of forms of flu from different species, such as birds or pigs, with a human form of flu. This is called an antigenic shift. This mix of different viruses can make a new, unique virus that no one will be immune to.

    Flu viruses are very infectious. Most people catch flu by breathing in air that has the virus in it. This usually happens when people with flu cough or sneeze, which spreads the virus in the air.

    You can also catch flu through direct contact with someone who has it, for example, by shaking hands or touching something they have touched. If you pick up the flu virus on your hands and then touch your nose or mouth, you may infect yourself. The flu virus can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours and on soft surfaces for about 20 minutes.

    If you have flu, you’re infectious and can spread the virus to other people. This can happen from the day when your symptoms start to five days afterwards. Children are infectious for longer.

  • Complications Complications of pandemic flu

    Healthy adults usually recover completely from seasonal flu in a few weeks. However, when pandemic flu develops, it’s difficult to know how severe the infection will be or how it may affect people. This is because the virus is a new strain. Some groups of people may be affected more than others. The complications of flu can include:

    • conditions that affect your lungs, for example, pneumonia and bronchitis
    • worsening of chest conditions, such as asthma
    • middle ear infections
    • inflamed sinuses (sinusitis)
    • myositis – sore leg muscles
    • encephalitis – inflammation of the brain
    • febrile convulsions – these are fits or seizures caused by a high temperature and seen mainly in children
  • Prevention Prevention of pandemic flu

    Pandemic flu can't be prevented, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce the spread of the virus and your risk of catching it. Some of the main ones are listed below.

    • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
    • Put used tissues into a bin as soon as you can.
    • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, especially after you sneeze or cough.
    • As well as washing your hands frequently, use an alcohol-based liquid or gel hand sanitiser, for example, after coughing or handling used tissues.
    • Clean hard surfaces like door handles and desks frequently.
    • Stay away from large crowds of people.
    • Don’t travel unless it's necessary.
    • If you're in a risk group, have the currently recommended flu vaccine once it becomes available.

    Make sure your children follow these guidelines too.

  • Vaccines Vaccines for pandemic flu

    Vaccines are always available for seasonal forms of flu. However, when a pandemic begins, it usually takes several months to make a new vaccine. In a pandemic flu period, once the vaccine becomes available, you will be advised whether you're in a risk group that should receive the vaccine. The risk groups identified for the vaccine are subject to change. They may include people aged over 65, and those with underlying diseases such as chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

  • FAQs FAQs

    How will I get antivirals if a flu pandemic begins?

    Answer

    In the event of a flu pandemic, the Department of Health will set up a National Pandemic Flu Line, which you can contact for more information.

    Explanation

    Antivirals can currently only be prescribed by a doctor. However, the UK Government is working on legislation and guidelines to ensure that during a pandemic, people who become ill will be able to have easier access to antivirals. It's planned that people will be able to phone the National Pandemic Flu Line to be assessed and get authorisation for treatment over the phone. Antivirals may reduce the length of time symptoms last and how severe they are. It's not yet known whether they will prevent any serious complications of pandemic flu, such as pneumonia.

    Will a seasonal flu vaccine protect me against an outbreak of pandemic flu?

    Answer

    No, a seasonal flu vaccine will not protect you against a new strain of pandemic flu.

    Explanation

    Vaccines are usually made from a killed or weakened form of a virus. Scientists must have the exact strain of virus before they can create the vaccine. Seasonal flu only changes a little from year to year, which means that the virus can usually be predicted in advance. This means that vaccines can be prepared and given in advance. Every year, people who are most at risk from seasonal flu are offered a vaccine against the virus.

    However, pandemic flu is unpredictable and can happen at any time. The flu viruses that cause pandemic flu are new strains – and it's impossible to predict in advance whether a new strain of flu will cause a pandemic. This means it's impossible to produce a vaccine until a pandemic has already begun and scientists are able to identify the virus responsible.

    Once a vaccine for a pandemic strain has been produced, it may be included as part of the next seasonal flu vaccine. For example, this happened with the vaccine for the H1N1 swine flu strain in the 2010/2011 flu season. By this point, the virus is no longer classed as a pandemic as enough people in the population have immunity.

    Should I wear a face mask during a pandemic flu outbreak?

    Answer

    If you have flu, wearing a face mask may help to prevent you from passing it on to someone else. If you don't have flu, wearing a face mask is unlikely to prevent you catching it.

    Explanation

    If there is a flu pandemic, you may think about wearing a face mask to protect yourself from the virus, or to prevent your infection spreading to someone else. Most people catch flu by breathing in air that has the virus in it. This usually happens when people with flu cough or sneeze, which spreads the virus through the air.

    If you have flu, wearing a face mask may help to stop you from passing it on to someone else. However, wearing a face mask if you don’t have the flu is unlikely to prevent you catching it.

    I'm travelling to Asia - should I be worried about avian flu?

    Answer

    Some countries in Asia have had outbreaks of avian (bird) flu. However, the risk of catching the virus is low.

    Explanation

    Avian flu usually only affects birds. In some birds, it only causes a few problems, but in poultry, for example chickens, it can spread quickly and kill large numbers of birds. Sometimes, the avian flu virus can spread to people, usually those who work in close contact with poultry. However, the virus usually doesn’t spread from person to person.

    In recent years the avian flu virus has killed about 300 people. Many of these deaths were in Asia in people who had close contact with birds. If you're travelling to a country where there has been an outbreak of avian flu, the Health Protection Agency recommends you should:

    • not visit places where live poultry are raised or kept. For example, poultry farms or bird markets, where you could be in contact with ill or dead birds
    • make sure that chicken, egg or duck dishes are cooked thoroughly before you eat them
    • avoid touching surfaces that could be contaminated with animal faeces
    • wash your hands with soap and water frequently

    The risk of catching avian flu is low, but if you develop the symptoms of flu during or after a trip to Asia, contact your GP.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • UK influenza pandemic preparedness strategy 2011. Department of Health, 2011. www.dh.gov.uk
    • Frequently asked questions on influenza. Health Protection Agency. www.hpa.org.uk, published 13 November 2013
    • Influenza virus infections in humans. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published July 2013
    • Pandemic influenza preparedness and response. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 2009
    • H1N1 (2009) pandemic archive. Health Protection Agency. www.hpa.org.uk, published 11 March 2011
    • Influenza – seasonal. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published October 2013
    • The use of facemasks and respirators in an influenza pandemic. Department of Health, 2011. www.dh.gov.uk
    • Seasonal influenza: factsheet for health professionals. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. www.ecdc.europa.eu, accessed 2 December 2013
    • Avian influenza and pandemic flu. Health Protection Agency. www.hpa.org.uk, published 13 August 2008
    • Travel advice. Health Protection Agency. www.hpa.org.uk, published 31 December 2008
    • Influenza. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 21 October 2011
    • Influenza. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, published 11 October 2013
    • Q & A on seasonal influenza. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. www.ecdc.europa.eu, accessed 3 March 2014
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2014.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information: verify here.

    This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Meet the team

Image of Andrew Byron

Andrew Byron
Head of health content and clinical engagement




  • Dylan Merkett – Lead Editor – UK Customer
  • Nick Ridgman – Lead Editor – UK Health and Care Services
  • Natalie Heaton – Specialist Editor – User Experience
  • Pippa Coulter – Specialist Editor – Content Library
  • Alice Rossiter – Specialist Editor – Insights
  • Laura Blanks – Specialist Editor – Quality
  • Michelle Harrison – Editorial Assistant

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.

Readable

In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.

Reliable

We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.

Relevant

We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: healthinfo@bupa.com. Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way
London
WC1A 2BA

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page.

For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

ˆ We may record or monitor our calls.