Seasonal flu – how to keep safe this flu season

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
09 September 2021
Next review due September 2024

Flu (influenza) is something many of us are familiar with. It’s a common respiratory virus that mostly affects people during the winter months. With flu tending to be forefront of our minds at this time of the year, it’s worth getting up to speed on all you need to know about it.

father and son walking hand in hand

What is flu?

Flu is a respiratory virus – that means it affects your nose, throat and lungs. It spreads easily via droplets in coughs and sneezes. Common symptoms of flu include a fever, chills, headache, aching muscles and joints, and extreme tiredness. You may also have a dry cough, sore throat and stuffy nose. Most people get better within a week. But for some, it can cause much more severe complications.

What’s the difference between flu and COVID-19?

Flu and COVID-19 are both respiratory viruses and have many of the same symptoms. There are some differences between them though. It can take longer for symptoms to develop with COVID-19 for example, and you may be contagious for longer. Although most people have a mild illness with COVID-19, you’re more likely to have serious complications than you are with flu.

As the symptoms can be so similar, there’s no way to tell flu and COVID-19 apart without testing.

How will COVID-19 affect this year’s flu season?

Experts have predicted that flu levels in the UK will be higher than normal this winter (2021 to 2022). This is because flu hasn’t been circulating as much as normal while restrictions such as social distancing and face coverings have been in place. This has led to low levels of natural immunity against flu in the population. Now that people are mixing again, it will be easier to spread. This will be the first winter that flu and COVID-19 are both likely to be circulating at the same time.

What should I do if I feel ill?

With any respiratory virus, you’ll usually be able to manage your symptoms by yourself at home. That goes for both flu and COVID-19. Get lots of rest, make sure you’re drinking enough fluids, and take paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage your symptoms.

It is ok to take ibuprofen to manage COVID-19 symptoms. Early on, some news reports said that ibuprofen could make COVID symptoms worse, but the Commission on Human Medicines confirmed that there is no clear evidence to suggest this. Paracetamol is generally a better choice for most people though, as ibuprofen itself can cause side-effects.

It may also be worthwhile doing a test for COVID-19 if you’re feeling unwell. The UK government currently only advises you to self-isolate and get a PCR test for certain symptoms. These include having a high temperature, new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of taste or smell. But the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is currently the most dominant in the UK, is known to cause many other symptoms too. These include headache, runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat.

Always seek medical help if your symptoms get worse, or if you’re not improving after a week.

What can I do to protect myself from flu?

With rates expected to be higher than normal, it’s more important than ever this year to get a flu vaccine if you’re eligible. The flu vaccination programme has been expanded this year to offer more people protection. The following groups of people are eligible for a free flu vaccine.

  • Children aged two to 16 years.
  • People aged 65 years or over.
  • Anyone in a clinical risk group. This includes people with severe asthma, COPD, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes, and those with a weakened immune system.
  • People who are pregnant.
  • Care home residents.
  • Carers.
  • Close contacts of people who have a weakened immune system.
  • Frontline health and social care staff.

It’s also important to get a COVID-19 vaccine, so that you’re protected against this too. All adults over the age of 18, and children at high risk over the age of 12 can have the COVID-19 vaccine. Young people aged 16 to 17 are also able to have a first dose. The NHS website has the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccine programme.

It’s also worth continuing with the various hygiene measures we’ve all become so used to over the past 18 months. This will help to reduce your risk of picking up, or passing on, any respiratory virus - including flu and COVID-19. They include the following.

  • Washing your hands or using hand sanitiser often. This is particularly important if you’ve come into contact with surfaces touched by many others (such as door handles or light switches).
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, and washing your hands before doing so.
  • Opening doors and windows if you’re in an enclosed space with other people.
  • Wearing a face covering – although no longer a legal requirement, it’s still recommended to do so in crowded and enclosed areas.
  • Covering your mouth with a disposable tissue when you cough or sneeze, and washing your hands afterwards. Or, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow.
  • Staying away from others when you feel unwell.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

    • The flu vaccination: who should have it and why. Public Health England., updated 26 August 2021
    • Influenza: the green book, chapter 19. Public Health England., last updated October 2020
    • COVID-19: the green book, chapter 14a. Public Health England., updated 30 July 2021
    • Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). BMJ Best Practice., last updated 5 August 2021
    • Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., last reviewed 7 June 2021
    • National flu immunisation programme 2021 to 2022 letter. Department of Health & Social Care, NHS England, Public Health England., updated 28 July 2021
    • Weekly national flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports. Public Health England., latest update 26 August 2021
    • Influenza - seasonal. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised August 2020
    • Coronavirus - COVID 19. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised July 2021
    • Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread. Cabinet Office. Last updated 20 August 2021
    • What are the new top 5 COVID symptoms? Zoe COVID study., published 23 June 2021
    • COVID-19 vaccination programme. Information for healthcare practitioners. Public Health England., republished 6 August 2021
    • Commission on Human Medicines advice on ibuprofen and coronavirus (COVID-19). Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and Commission on Human Medicines., published 14 April 2020
    • Flu vaccination programme 2023 to 2024: information for healthcare practitioners. UK Government., updated 21 September 2023

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