Written by Dr Claudia Pastides, 4th October 2019
The flu is a very common and highly infectious disease caused by the influenza virus.
Typical flu symptoms include:
- A fever over 38 degrees Celsius
- Muscle aches
- Feeling exhausted
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
Usually the flu doesn’t require a doctor’s appointment. If you are feeling worse or worried about your symptoms, getting out of bed to go to your GP surgery can be a challenge. Fortunately you can see a healthcare professional via the Babylon app, without having to leave the comfort of your bed.
How the flu spreads
A simple cough or sneeze can release up to 200 million viruses from an infected person's airway. The virus propels as far as 8 metres through the air!
These air-borne viruses can be breathed in by others nearby. The flu virus is also able to survive on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours. From there they are picked up by a hand and passed into the nose or mouth whilst eating or touching your face.
How the flu makes you ill
The influenza virus enters the cells of your airway. It then takes over the cell's internal factory, replicating itself many times. As new influenza viruses are made, they leave the cell and go on to infect more cells, creating more viruses and so on.
Your body is equipped to fight off unwanted viruses. Your immune system will kick into action and build up a response to get rid of them.
This takes a few days and in the process will cause a fever, along with inflammation of your airways. Your immune system needs this to happen in order to effectively fight off the virus.
Unfortunately the fever makes you feel awful. The inflammation causes other unpleasant symptoms too, such as a dry cough and a sore throat. These symptoms tend to drag you down for a week or so, and you might find you feel exhausted for a while longer too.
When should I get help?
There are no hard and fast rules here, but it is worth considering two things.
Firstly, as the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help you to recover. Secondly, your immune system should clear the flu successfully (if you are generally fit and well).
In most cases, the flu can be self-managed at home without seeing a doctor. However, the flu can sometimes cause serious health problems. If you are concerned, feel very unwell or have any of the following risk factors, please book a GP appointment:
- Young child under 5 years of age
- Aged 65 or over
- You are pregnant
- Have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, asthma, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
- Have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy, steroids or HIV
The flu can be unpredictable, even if you’re generally fit and well. It is always important to keep an eye out for symptoms that suggest you should see a doctor, such as:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Trouble swallowing food or drink
- A persistently high fever (over 38 degrees Celsius)
- Feeling confused or drowsy
- Becoming increasingly worse as the days go by or not getting better
If you are worried or unsure about your symptoms, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor or healthcare professional. You can see one of our GPs 24/7 without needing to leave your house.
Treating the flu at home
The best advice is to:
- Get plenty of rest and sleep
- Keep warm
- Discuss over the counter medication options with your local pharmacist
- Take paracetamol or ibuprofen (if not contraindicated) to lower your temperature and treat aches or pains
- Drink plenty of water (or squash / watered down juice) to avoid dehydration
- Try not to spread the flu by washing your hands well and binning any used tissues straight away
The flu vaccine
Some people are more at risk of developing complications as a result of the flu. For example; pregnant women, young children, people aged over 65 and people with certain long-term health conditions.
The NHS offers and recommends the flu vaccine for free to those people at higher risk. For more information on NHS eligibility and the flu vaccine, have a look at our flu vaccine information page.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.