Dr Noureen Ahmad
General Practitioner, Belgium
The seasonal flu, also known as influenza, is a viral infection in the body caused by the influenza viruses. The most common type of the flu is the influenza virus type A and influenza virus type B, both of which occur mostly in the winter months.
A few years ago, there had been a widespread outbreak of the swine flu and bird flu around the world, which resulted in hospitalisation and even death. This was because this kind of influenza virus was new and derived from the influenza viruses of infected swine and birds.
The seasonal flu often causes infections that affect the respiratory system. This means that these viruses can easily spread by breathing in airborne droplets of infected individuals that are coughing or sneezing. There is also a chance of it spreading through direct contact with contaminated surfaces, which is most likely to be in crowded places (public transport, public buildings such as schools, colleges, universities and hospitals).
After getting in contact with the flu viruses, the clinical symptoms of the flu start within 1-3 days, however this is variable.
Symptoms of the flu are variable but are mostly present as cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat and coughing. High fever is also usual as well as body aches, extreme tiredness and headaches. In some cases, it can also cause swollen glands in the neck. Stomach complaints and intestinal problems are usually rare in the seasonal flu.
Doctors, based on the clinical symptoms, make diagnosis of the flu. Further investigations such as blood tests or imaging are not required. A throat or a nose swab is not a standard procedure unless there is a doubt of a new type of influenza virus.
One of the most common complications of influenza is pneumonia (bacterial lung infection). This can occur in individuals with underlying chronic illnesses. In these patients, there is a relapse of the fever after initial improvement and no health improvement after a few days.
They can also develop other symptoms such as coughing up yellow-green mucus, chest pain and breathing problems. In this situation, it is recommended to contact the doctor to perform blood tests and imaging of the chest to obtain the severity of the condition and optimise treatment.
Normally, the seasonal flu is self-limiting and heals within 1-2 weeks, however this period can be longer in some populations such as children, elderly people or individuals with chronic illnesses or with immune system disorders (HIV, transplantation patients). The mortality rate is high in these populations as they have many risk factors to develop complications of the flu.
There is no specific treatment for the seasonal flu, but there are tips that can ease the symptoms. It is important that you stay at home while you are sick and take sufficient rest. Intake of fluids is also important to keep the body hydrated. Cough syrups can be used in adults; however, these are not really effective. The cough usually resolves without treatment. A good natural remedy is the intake of warm fluids (soup, tea) and honey.
Sometimes medication can be used to relieve symptoms. The most common medication in the seasonal flu is paracetamol. This medication helps against body pains and also controls the fever. Mostly, paracetamol is recommended for pain as a first line treatment as it is safe in most cases and side effects are rare. This can also be used by children (liquid form available) and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Patients with kidney or liver problems or patients using other medication should discuss this with their doctor first.
The standard dose for healthy individuals is maximum 3-4 grams daily, however it is preferable not to use more then 3 grams daily. Children have to take a lower dose, depending on their age and weight, and will usually be determined by their doctor or a pharmacist. Aspirin is not advised for children and teenagers under the age of 18 years as it can cause severe side effects.
Some patients ask for antibiotics as they think that antibiotics can make them heal quicker. However, antibiotics work on bacterial infections and not on viral infections like the flu. This means that antibiotics have no effect on the duration of the flu, but instead can cause side effects and can also lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can consequentially lead to infections, which will be difficult to treat.
As we all know, prevention is better than cure. Flu can be prevented if individuals are attentive on having good hand hygiene and prevent close contact with individuals who are already infected.
There is also a vaccine against the seasonal flu, which is mostly given around the period of October and November. This can vary slightly from country to country. Every year, this flu vaccine is modified and adjusted to the viruses’ pool. Although the flu vaccine can prevent having the flu, this is not a full guarantee.
If one still gets the flu after the flu vaccine, they will have less chance of getting severely ill from the flu. The vaccine is advisable for pregnant women, people above the age of 65 years and patients with chronic illnesses.
(Always discuss with your doctor what supplements you want to take or are taking so your health and wellbeing can be properly looked after.)