Respiratory infections

What is influenza?

While we often refer to any cold or flu-like symptoms as the “flu”, influenza is a severe illness and for some, even fatal. Influenza (flu) is an infection that affects the respiratory system. It is spread from person-to-person by tiny drops produced during a cough or sneeze. It can affect anyone. For most people, rest and over-the-counter pain relief will help you manage your symptoms and the infection will resolves itself. But some people are more likely to experience a severe case.

Who is at risk of getting the flu?

We are all at risk of getting and spreading the flu – it can affect people of all ages. Those at highest risk of being hospitalised with the flu include:

  • Infants
  • People aged over 65 years
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Pregnant women
  • People with long-term medical conditions
  • People who have weakened immune systems
  • People who are obese
  • People who smoke
  • People who have not been vaccinated against the flu.

What are the symptoms of flu?

Flu symptoms often appear suddenly. People at higher risk of complications, such as those with chronic lung disease, should seek prompt medical attention. Symptoms of influenza can include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache, muscle aches and joint pain
  • Dry, chesty cough
  • Nasal congestion and runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Sneezing
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Most people recover from the flu within one or two weeks, but others, especially the elderly, may feel weak for a long time even after other symptoms go away.

Protecting yourself against the flu

Prevention is your best protection. Getting vaccinated, practicing good hand hygiene and staying at home if you’re unwell is the best way to protect yourself and help prevent the spread of nasty viruses like influenza.

Why do I need the flu vaccine each year?

Vaccination is an effective way of lessening the chance of catching influenza. Unlike other infectious diseases, the flu virus changes and different varieties occur each year. That’s why the vaccine is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which flu viruses are making people sick, how those viruses are spreading, and how well the previous season’s vaccine protects against those variations.

When should I get the flu vaccine?

Optimal protection against the flu occurs within the first three to four months following vaccination, so it should be timed to achieve the highest level of protection during peak flu season. In most parts of Australia, this is usually between June to September. For most people, a booster dose of the flu vaccine isn’t necessary, but it may be recommended for some individuals for reasons such as travel or pregnancy. You should discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor.

What type of flu vaccine should I get?

There are several types of flu vaccines registered and available for use in Australia. It is important to get the right vaccine for your age. Your immunisation provider can tell you which vaccine they will use for you, according to the Australian Immunisation Handbook and the National Immunisation Program.

Who is eligible for a free flu vaccine?

Under the National Immunisation Program, the following groups are eligible for a free flu vaccine due to their increased risk of complications from the virus:

– People aged 6 months to less than 5 years
– Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and over
– Pregnant women
– People aged 65 years and over
– People aged 5 years and over with medical risk conditions including chronic lung disease such as bronchiectasis and COPD.

Vaccines are the best defence to reduce the spread of flu. If you are not eligible for a free vaccine, you can still receive it by paying for it. The cost depends on the type of vaccine, the formula and where you buy it from. Your immunisation provider, such as your doctor or pharmacist, can give you more information.

Will I get sick from the flu vaccine?

Most people have little or no reaction to the flu vaccine. Some people may experience a swollen red tender area where the vaccine was given. Occasionally, slight fever and chills, or even worsening of chest symptoms may occur in those who already have lung disease. These rarely last longer than one or two days. Because the vaccine is produced in eggs, people who are allergic to eggs should not receive the vaccine unless it is absolutely necessary.

Where to get your influenza vaccine?

You can book a vaccine appointment at a range of health services including:

  • local doctor/general practices
  • local council immunisation clinics (available in some states and territories)
  • community health centres
  • Aboriginal health services
  • participating pharmacies.

Not all of these vaccination providers will have the free National Immunisation Program vaccines. Check with your preferred vaccination provider to find out:

  • about the specific vaccines they can provide
  • when they will be available; and
  • when you can book in to have the vaccine
  • if there is a consultation or administration fee to get the free vaccines.

For more information, please refer to Department of Health document here.

COVID-19: What your need to know?

With the COVID-19 virus spreading in the community, you may feel anxious about becoming unwell. There are measures you can put in place to help yourself, family and friends to live the safest life during this time. Get all the latest information about COVID-19 here.

What causes the flu?

The flu is caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. These viruses spread through droplets in the air when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. The virus can also be spread by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching your own mouth, eyes or nose. You can spread the flu before you know you are sick, beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick.

How is the flu diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose a probable influenza infection based on your symptoms alone. They will listen to your chest using a stethoscope. If your doctor wants to be sure of the diagnosis they may take a sample of cells and mucus from your nose or throat using a sterile cotton swab. This sample will be sent to a pathology laboratory for testing.

What happens when you get the flu and how is it treated?

After infection, it takes 1-3 days for symptoms to develop. Healthy people mostly have symptoms of a sore throat, dry cough, nausea and sore eyes. Fever, chills, muscle aches and pains and loss of appetite occur in more severe cases. These symptoms usually settle after a week. You often feel very tired for days or even weeks after the flu. Breathlessness can occur if more severe complications such as pneumonia develop.

If you have the flu, bed rest helps muscle aches and pains and over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol can help lower a fever. Aspirin is also useful for fever and pain in adults but is not used in young children or teenagers with the flu. The combination of flu and Aspirin in this age group has been known to cause Reye’s Syndrome which affects the nervous system and liver. Relenza and Tamiflu are two medicines available for the treatment of influenza, however, they only help if taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms. These medicines do not have any effect on the common cold and they are not recommended for use in children under 12 years of age. People with chronic lung disease may require antibiotics to prevent the onset of bacterial infections which may worsen influenza.

Influenza can be severe or even fatal if a person is not in good health to begin with. The body and its defences can also become so weakened by influenza that other infections can occur. Pneumonia, sinusitis, airway or inner ear infection may occur. Influenza can also worsen other problems such as diabetes, chronic bronchitis or heart failure.