We’ve all heard people say “oh I’ve just come down with the flu”, and for doctors that can spark a little panic.

What people often mean is they have the common cold, because influenza can be a lot more serious, and unless you’ve experienced it you don’t know what it can feel like.

In some ways it is similar to the common cold, as it’s a virus, highly contagious and spreads to the respiratory tract. It can be present year round but tends to peak in winter, and in Sydney this is particularly around July and August.

So how is it different? What are the symptoms?

Typically people suffering from influenza suffer some or all of the following symptoms

  • Fevers and chills
  • Cough, sore throat and runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches, joint pains
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (significant fatigue)
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea (more common in children, but can happen in adults)

Compare these to the common cold and that seems like a walk in the park.
Sometimes the symptoms last for more than a week. It is possible to have very mild symptoms, if you contract the flu but were immunised that year or if you have some immunity from a recent infection.

Should I see the doctor? When should I see the doctor?

If you suffer from any chronic medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes, you should come see us as soon as you think you have the flu. You should also see us if you have any of the following symptoms;

  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion or sudden dizziness
  • Persistent vomiting

How is it spread?

Influenza spreads through droplets that travel in the air from when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also be transmitted by touching a surface where these drops have landed.
People with influenza can be infections from a day prior to showing any symptoms.
Adults are typically infectious during the first 3-5 days, while children continue to be infectious for 7-10 days.

People with weakened immune systems can be infectious for even longer.

Who is at risk?

Well everyone is at risk of catching it unless you live in a bubble with HEPA filters. But some people are more at risk of developing serious complications.
If you suffer from any chronic disease that affects the heart, lungs, kidneys or blood, any neurological conditions or illnesses that required hospitalisation in the previous year – you want to do everything you can to avoid catching the flu.
See our influenza vaccine page for more information to see if you qualify for a free flu vaccine.
Children aged 5 or less, and adults over 65 are also at significant risk, but children aged 5-15 are the highest transmitters – and have the lowest rates of influenza immunisation.

How is it prevented?

Influenza vaccination each year, before the start of winter is the best way to prevent influenza.

Like the common cold, it’s also important to wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and throw away used tissues away immediately to help prevent the spread to your contacts. If you’re happy to don the look, face masks can be helpful to prevent spread to friends, family and colleagues.

To date there have been no vitamins or supplements that have shown to reliably prevent the flu (and lots of evidence showing that supplements are not likely to contain what they claim anyway!).

Oh no I’ve got the flu! What now?

Most of the symptoms are well managed by having bed rest and taking simple analgesia such as paracetamol for aches and pains. Make sure you do not give aspirin or aspirin containing medications to children aged under 16 years old – as this can cause a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

There are specific antiviral medications available for treating influenza, but need to be commenced within 48 hours of the first symptoms. These are best for people at higher risk of developing complications from influenza.

Things that don’t help

  • Antibiotics – Influenza is caused by a group of viruses and you’re unlikely to get an antibiotic from us if you have the flu. They can cause side effects which just make you feel worse if you don’t need them
  • Cough medicines – these never really help. The cough is caused by irritation of the trachea, or from mucous that trickles down. Dry or chesty cough medicines won’t help either of these symptoms
  • Cold and flu tablets – The most helpful thing in these is the paracetamol. If you have other symptoms like a blocked nose, it’s better to use a separate spray or rinse instead of an all in one tablet. Think of it as making a custom preparation for you instead of taking things you don’t need, and which won’t help anyway.
  • Aspirin – in children do not give aspirin as it can lead to a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome

If you think you have the flu, please call ahead before arriving, or tell reception immediately as we need to ensure any immunocompromised or pregnant patients in the waiting area can be moved to avoid any transmission.

You may be asked to wear a mask, or we can pop you into a room before the doctor will see you. Thanks so much for your understanding.

Common Cold

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