How to protect yourself against Australian flu

Medical Director at Bupa UK
04 January 2018

‘Australian flu’ has been hitting the headlines recently, but what exactly is it and what should you do to keep yourself out of harm’s way? Here I explain.

Lady blowing her nose

What is ‘Australian flu’?

Each year in the UK when the colder months are upon us many of us are struck down by flu. But, unlike the common cold, which starts with a stuffy or runny nose and sore throat, flu can be much worse. If you have it, it’s likely that you’ll suddenly get a fever, experience chills and, amongst other things, feel extremely tired. You can find out more about the symptoms of flu on our page: Seasonal flu.

There are two main types of flu (or influenza) virus that cause you to become ill: influenza A and influenza B. For each type there are different strains and variations of the virus. ‘Australian flu’ is a name being used to describe a particular strain of the influenza A virus. This is known as H3N2, which as the name suggests, has recently affected Australia.

So what’s the problem?

Although we have vaccines to fight against flu, the influenza virus can adapt and change, which is why it isn’t always fully effective. To combat this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) collects data from around the world on the types, strains and variants of influenza that have caused illness. They collect this data from one flu season to the next. This is to make sure that they have all the information they need to develop a new improved vaccine, if needed.

But if you’ve ever been to Australia, you’ll know that come Christmas – when our flu season is underway – on the other side of the world, winter is long gone and it’s time for your sunnies and swimsuit. So worldwide there are two different flu seasons, and it all depends on where exactly you are!

The key point here is that Australia’s flu season may give us clues as to what’s in store for the UK. And this year during their winter, Australia saw the highest level of flu since 2009. What’s more alarming is that they noticed a decrease in how well their current vaccine protected against a particular variant of influenza A that was circulating.

Where panic may arise is that our current flu vaccine is the same, so we too could feel the effects seen in Australia this winter. But, there are things you can do to help protect yourself and others.

Protecting yourself and others from ‘Australian flu’

  1. Get the flu jab. Although this may sound counter-intuitive after what we’ve just discussed – it isn’t, and I can’t emphasise that enough! Having the flu jab may give you some protection against the altered strain. It can also protect you against other strains of influenza A and B that are fought by the vaccine. Getting the flu jab is particularly important if you are at a higher risk of becoming ill. This includes:
    • children
    • older people
    • pregnant women
    • people with low immune systems – this is the part of your body that fights infection
    • people with underlying health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease or respiratory conditions such as COPD or asthma (to name a few)

  2. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. The influenza virus is spread through tiny droplets that travel through the air when you, or someone else, coughs or sneezes. These tiny droplets can be breathed in or picked up when you touch surfaces that they’ve landed on. So covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, is really important. Try to use a tissue to cover your mouth and remember to dispose of it safely in a nearby bin.

  3. Wash your hands. As simple as it is, washing your hands is arguably the most effective way to prevent yourself from catching or spreading flu to others. But do you know how to wash your hands correctly? Follow the steps below – it’s more complexed then you may think!

    An infographic from Bupa UK on how to wash your hands properly


  4. Avoid unnecessary contact. If you have flu, the good news is – for most of us – symptoms usually clear up in about a week. But during this time it’s best to try and avoid contact with people. If you have children with the flu, remember to be extra careful. Children are what we often refer to as ‘super spreaders’, meaning that they share germs more readily than others. So keep them at home and away from other children and relatives – especially grandparents who may be at greater risk.

Getting help

If your symptoms don’t clear up within a week or you’re at greater risk of becoming ill (see above), you should seek medical advice from your GP as soon as possible.

If your symptoms are severe, or you experience sudden chest pains, difficulty breathing or coughing up blood, you should call the emergency services on 999 to get help immediately.

Further information

You can find out more about flu from the World Health Organisation on their page: Influenza (seasonal). And for more information and support on the flu vaccine, take a look at this resource provided by Public Health England: Flu vaccination: who should have it this winter and why.




Becoming unwell or developing an injury can be disruptive to our busy life; which is why our health insurance aims to help you get back on your feet sooner rather than later, so you can get back to doing the things you enjoy.

Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK

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