Flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory viral infection that attacks the ears, nose, throat and lungs.

Symptoms can be mild to severe, and it affects all age groups, although children younger than 5 and adults over 65 are most vulnerable. Other risk groups include women during pregnancy, people with weakened immune systems, people with certain chronic illnesses such as heart disease, lung or kidney disease, diabetes and cancer, and those who are severely overweight.

Flu usually develops suddenly, spreads easily through coughs and sneezes and lingers much longer than a cold. The flu virus is typically in circulation in the winter months in South Africa, hence it being dubbed ‘flu season’.

What are its symptoms?

Flu symptoms include:

  • A high fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhoea (most common in children).

Pay attention as flu can become serious, developing into pneumonia and even causing death. If your symptoms are severe, seek immediate medical attention.

How is it diagnosed?

If you are fit and healthy, you do not need to see a doctor when you have flu. But if your symptoms last longer than a week, worsen, are combined with other symptoms such as a rash, or if you have an existing medical condition such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, bacterial pneumonia or HIV/AIDS that is making your flu worse, then you need to consult a doctor. A flu diagnosis will depend on the severity of your symptoms and medical history.

The difference between the flu versus a cold is relatively straightforward: A cold virus usually infects only the upper respiratory tract, that is, your nose and throat without systemic symptoms.

What are your treatment options?

There are no instant remedies for flu. Healthcare practitioners suggest you let the infection simply run its course, advising bed rest as the most effective treatment. It is also recommended that you stay home from work or school, so preventing the spread of the virus.

Over-the-counter cold and flu drugs can offer some relief from fever, aches, a stuffy nose and a cough. They don't cure the flu, but can help ease your discomfort.

Prescription medication can shorten the time you feel unwell if you take them within 48 hours of the first symptoms.

Can it be prevented?

Flu prevention remedies include a flu vaccination (or ‘flu jab’), good personal hygiene and antiviral medication.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the latest flu vaccine. The vaccination works by using inactivated viruses to prompt your immune system to produce antibodies (proteins that neutralise viruses). While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, even if you do catch the flu, it’ll be short-lived and much less severe than if you opted not to get vaccinated.

If you’re at risk, have an existing medical condition or if there’s a lot of flu around, antiviral medication is recommended. These include prescription pills, liquids or inhalers.

Ensure you practise good hygiene: wash your hands often, keep your mouth and nose covered when you cough or sneeze, and avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth as this spreads germs.

What to do now
To make an appointment for a flu vaccination at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015
Read More: Flu Super Section