Influenza, or flu, is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. There are three main types of influenza virus that cause infection in humans – types A, B and C – and many sub-types or strains. Influenza can occur throughout the year, but influenza activity usually peaks in winter.
Influenza is a vaccine-preventable illness, but a new vaccine needs to be given each year because influenza viruses change (mutate) constantly. A new influenza vaccine is prepared each year to best match the strains predicted for the coming influenza season.
People with influenza typically experience some or all of the following symptoms:
Some symptoms may last for more than a week. Some people may also experience very mild symptoms, particularly if they have some immunity from a previous infection or vaccination.
Seek immediate medical advice if the illness quickly becomes worse or if any of the following symptoms occur:
Influenza viruses are mainly spread by droplets made when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Influenza can also be spread through touching surfaces where infected droplets have landed.
People with influenza can be infectious from the day before their symptoms start. Adults are most infectious in the first 3-5 days of their illness, while children remain infectious for 7-10 days, and people with weakened immune systems may be infectious for longer.
While anyone can get influenza, people at higher risk of complications from influenza infection (and who are eligible for free annual flu vaccine) include:
Get a flu shot
Sneeze into your elbow
Clean your hands
Stay at home if sick
Doctors usually diagnose influenza based on symptoms. The diagnosis can be confirmed by testing a sample of fluid taken from the back of the nose and throat or a blood sample. These tests are usually only needed if the illness is severe or if there is an increased risk of complications.
The symptoms of influenza are usually managed by bed rest and taking simple analgesics for muscle aches and pains. Children under 16 years of age must not be given aspirin-containing medications while ill with influenza. This is due to the increased risk of children developing Reye syndrome, a form of encephalitis and liver degeneration.
Specific influenza antiviral medicines can reduce the severity and the duration of influenza but need to be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. These medicines need to be prescribed by a doctor and are usually considered for people at higher risk of complications from influenza infection.
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