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People often say they have flu when really they have some other virus which is giving them ‘flu-like’ symptoms – and so-called ‘gastric flu’ is certainly not due to the influenza virus. But for many people the symptoms of flu – a dreadfully ill feeling, sometimes with acutely painful muscles, a high temperature and a headache – are such that the sufferer may suspect he or she has been afflicted with a very serious illness.

There are three main types of’proper’ flu virus recognisable under a microscope – A, B and C, the C variety being mild and insignificant. The A type is highly infectious and often develops into a widespread epidemic or even a worldwide pandemic – the ‘Asian flu’ of 1957 and the ‘Hong Kong flu’ of 1968 were caused by the A flu virus. Influenza B spreads less rapidly, tends to remain localised to communities or institutions such as schools and colleges and to occur at intervals of about four years

Flu is caught by breathing in the virus through germs in the air breathed out by sufferers. The virus then attacks and inflames the lining of the nose, throat and air passages, causing symptoms similar to those of a severe cold. Joint and muscle aches and pains, headache and fever are also common, as the virus is carried by the bloodstream to other parts of the body. The worst is usually over in about a week, though an attack of flu can leave the sufferer feeling tired and depressed for some time afterwards. The very young or very old and those with chronic chest or heart problems, kidney disease or diabetes are particularly vulnerable to the more severe effects of flu and, because of the way it is spread, are more likely to catch it if living in an institution.

Although antibiotics will have no effect on the virus itself (or indeed on viruses in general), your doctor will often prescribe an antibiotic at the first sign of flu for anyone with a ‘weak chest’ – chronic bronchitis sufferers, for example -to prevent a secondary bacterial infection developing and causing more damage. Coughing up green or yellow sputum is an indication of this type of infection and means you should consult your doctor, as antibiotics may be necessary.

Otherwise, rest in bed, take two aspirin or paracetamol every four hours, or follow the instructions for taking your preferred painkiller . Children with flu are not generally recommended to take aspirin, however. Drink plenty of liquid. Steam inhalations can make breathing easier and linctus should relieve any cough you may have . To relieve flu symptoms such as blocked sinuses, stuffed-up nose and catarrh, refer to

With most viruses – measles for instance – the antibodies we develop after one attack give us a natural, lasting immunity. In other cases, a specific vaccine can protect us by stimulating effective antibodies. This is because the virus does not change. Not so with flu. The vaccine produced against flu has to be updated annually because the virus itself alters and keeps developing slightly different strains. So, although the antibodies we produced if we caught flu last year will give us resistance to some attacks in future, they will not protect us against the new strains that may have developed since. Vaccine manufacturers must keep adding to their anti-flu ‘cocktail’ and try to keep pace.

Immunisation against flu is becoming increasingly widespread in Britain. A vaccination given in the autumn provides about 70% protection and lasts about a year. Most doctors believe it’s worthwhile for the vulnerable groups -it’s estimated that several thousand people die in the UK every year from the effects of flu and around eight out of every ten of those are over the age of 65.

Anyone at special risk should consult his or her doctor for advice. The risk categories include anyone who suffers from chronic chest, heart or kidney disease or diabetes. The vaccine should also benefit elderly people or children living together – in residential homes or schools, for example. Other groups at risk include those who have conditions such as AIDS which affect the body’s immune system, or those who are taking drugs that are known to dampen the natural defences.

Do I have a flu injection myself, you may ask? No, but then I’m not in the high risk category and there’s little evidence that the fit population suffer too much overall disadvantage from contact with the real flu germ. We may suffer some unpleasant symptoms, but they are quite often mild, and the protection the real virus germs provoke in our bodies is stronger and more lasting than that provided by vaccination – although, as I said, the variation between the different strains of flu virus means that neither natural immunisation nor vaccination lasts forever. And do high doses of Vitamin C give you protection? Again, the answer is unclear. You pays your money or you takes your chance, and I prefer to take my chance! There isn’t really anything you can do to prevent yourself getting a cold or flu. But when you do have a bout of flu, it is foolish and unfair to others to struggle to work, unless your presence is absolutely essential – you are almost certain to infect someone else. Rest is a natural aid to recovery, so by staying quietly at home you will be doing yourself a favour, too. If everyone, at the very first sign of flu, became a recluse for a few days, epidemics and pandemics would probably become a thing of the past! What’s Available

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