With winter fast approaching, it is a good time to be thinking about how to prepare for the flu season.  In this article we will help you identify the symptoms, explain the best time to have your flu vaccination and share ways to protect yourself this flu season.

What is the flu and how is it different to a cold?

Influenza or the flu, is a respiratory illness that in some cases, can be fatal.  In children aged five years and under, it is the leading cause of hospitalisation.  Typical flu symptoms include fever, cough, muscle aches and pains, nasal congestion, headache, sore throat and fatigue.  Although symptoms may seem similar, there are key differences between a cold and the flu such as:

  • Extreme exhaustion – you’ll feel this with the flu but not with the common cold
  • Sore Throat – common with a cold but rare with the flu
  • Aches/pains – common and sometimes severe with the flu but mild with a cold
  • Headache – rare with a cold but common for the flu
  • Sneezing – a usual symptom for a cold but rare for the flu
  • Fever – rare for a cold but will occur up to four days with the flu
  • Chest discomfort/cough – mild to moderate hacking cough with a cold and common verging on severe in some cases for the flu
  • Fatigue – sometimes occurs with a cold but can last up to three weeks with the flu

Flu symptoms can last up to a week but may lead to further complications especially amongst people who already have a serious health problem. 

With up to 200 hundred viruses causing a cold, it’s a very common illness to contract.  Influenza is classified in different types and sub-types with Influenza A and B being responsible for most illnesses in humans although the virus constantly evolves and mutates to form new strains.  Different strains prevail with each season with some strains proving to be more deadly to certain age groups. 

Why is vaccination important?

The Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee in consultation with the Therapeutic Goods Administration identify the strains to be included in the Australian flu vaccines each year after receiving recommendations from the World Health Organisation.  The vaccine funded for the National Immunisation Program in Australia contains two strains of Influenza A and two Influenza B strains.  Each strain is chosen based on their prevalence during the flu season in the northern hemisphere to ensure the best defence is provided.

On average, the flu causes 3500 deaths and 18000 hospitalisations per year in Australia and as the best protection is a vaccination, it’s important to receive your flu shot.   The vaccination will build immunity against the virus preventing transmission to other people and has been shown to prevent the illness in 50-60% of people.   It’s especially important in children as they can easily transfer the disease and are the most susceptible. As the vaccine isn’t live, you won’t catch the flu by being vaccinated however, you may experience some side effects for a few days such as fever, tiredness and muscle aches.

Who should have the vaccination?

According to the Australian Government, it’s important that everyone over the age of six months receive the flu vaccination.  In particular, the following people are especially at risk of contracting the virus or experiencing complications:

  • all children from six months to less than five years of age (some states may fund this)
  • pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy (influenza and whooping cough vaccination can be given at the same time OR at different times during pregnancy).
  • all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over
  • individuals aged six months to under 65 years with medical conditions which increase the risk of influenza disease complications 

When is the best time to vaccinate? 

It takes up to two weeks for the flu vaccination to activate and gives its best protection in the first three to four months.  The flu season in Australia usually runs from June to September, with August being the peak month.  It’s recommended that the flu vaccination is received in April or May to ensure you are protected throughout the season.  If you miss this window, it is never too late to receive the vaccine if the flu is still in circulation.

How to avoid the flu

It’s best to try and avoid the flu altogether.  Follow these simple steps to help protect yourself during flu season:

  1. The most important step, get your flu shot at the right time of year to ensure you are protected!
  2. Always thoroughly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitiser that has between 60-95% ethanol or isopropanol
  3. Cover your face with your elbow when coughing or sneezing
  4. Always dispose of used tissues – you don’t have to use every inch of them!  The flu virus can survive outside the body for a few hours   
  5. Don’t be a hero, stay home from work if you have flu symptoms.  It easily spreads in an office environment so quarantine yourself

To speak to one of our friendly pharmacists or arrange a flu vaccination, click here to find your nearest Ramsay Pharmacy.