Seasonal flu

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Seasonal flu (influenza) is an infection caused by a virus that can affect your nose, throat and lungs. People tend to get it around the same time every year. In the UK, people usually get seasonal flu between December and March, although outbreaks can happen as early as October and as late as May.

Woman blowing her nose

What are the different types of flu?

There are three different types of influenza virus that can cause flu: A, B and C. Most people get flu from the A and B viruses.

What are the symptoms of flu?

The most common symptoms of flu include:

  • a high temperature (38°C to 40°C)
  • chills
  • a headache
  • feeling tired, weak and generally unwell
  • aching muscles and joints
  • losing your appetite
  • a sore throat
  • a dry cough

You might also get a runny nose and burning or painful eyes that are particularly sensitive to light.

The symptoms of flu tend to appear quite suddenly, within two to three days of getting infected.

Although the symptoms of flu can be similar to a common cold, they are usually more intense. If you have flu, you’ll feel much worse than if you have a cold. And if you have a cold, you’ll have a runny or stuffy nose.

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How can I manage the symptoms?

If you catch flu, it’s important to get plenty of rest and drink enough to stay hydrated. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to help reduce the fever and pain.

Ideally, it’s best to stay off work or school (for children) for about a week. This will give you time to recover and prevent spreading the infection to others. Most people start to get over the flu and feel better after a week. But it may take some people longer than this to get better.

When should I seek help from a doctor?

If your symptoms don’t start to improve after a week or if they get worse, you should contact your GP. Also contact them if you get other symptoms, particularly chest pain or breathlessness. Symptoms like these can mean that you may be developing a more severe condition, such as pneumonia.

Some groups of people are more at risk of developing flu complications. These include:

  • pregnant women
  • people over 65
  • young children (under five)
  • people with a long-term illness such as diabetes, kidney disease, asthma, COPD or heart disease

How can I help stop the spread of flu?

Flu spreads easily via droplets in coughs and sneezes. Your hands can also become contaminated with the virus, which means you can spread it from the surfaces you touch. To help prevent spreading flu, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Best of all, stay at home if you can.

You can improve your chances of not getting flu at all by having the flu vaccine – or flu jab – each year. People who are at a higher risk of complications should get the flu vaccine every year.

If you need advice from a doctor, contact your GP surgery by phone first. This is because there’s a risk of spreading the virus to others, who may be more vulnerable. Your GP surgery may ask you to visit at a specific time, or they may give you advice over the phone.

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Related information

    • Influenza infection. BMJ Best Practice., last updated 27 April 2018
    • Influenza – seasonal. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised October 2015
    • Influenza (seasonal). World Health Organization., published 31 January 2018
    • Influenza: the green book, chapter 19. GOV.UK., last updated 1 December 2017
    • Cold versus flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., last updated 30 January 2018
    • Personal communication, Professor Robert Read, Professor of Infectious Diseases, 25 May 2018
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, June 2018
    Expert reviewer, Professor Robert Read, Professor of Infectious Diseases
    Next review due June 2021