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Flu (Influenza)

Introduction

Flu is a common infection caused by the influenza virus. It is mainly spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

  • In colder, temperate climates flu is common in the winter months, the ‘flu season’.
  • In tropical climates, flu can occur all year round.

Symptoms of flu commonly include fever, tiredness, sore throat, headache, joint and muscle aches.

Recommendations for Travellers

If you are visiting a country during its flu season you will be at a similar risk of infection as the local residents.

Your risk of catching flu will increase if you are attending crowded places such as pilgrimages, festivals, cruises; or travelling through airports and other busy transport hubs.

The risk of flu infection is reduced by practicing good respiratory hygiene, hand hygiene and by receiving the flu vaccine.

Vaccination

There are effective vaccines against flu. There are numerous different strains of the influenza virus and each year different ones may cause infection. This is why flu vaccine is given every year – it protects against the strains most likely to be causing infection that year.

Vaccination against flu for travel purposes is dependent on an individual risk assessment, based on the country being visited, type of travel and activities you will be undertaking.

You may wish to be vaccinated to reduce the risk of your trip being disrupted by catching the flu; particularly if you are aged 65 years or over, have a medical condition making you more at risk of severe flu, or are attending a large gathering, festival or sporting event during flu season.

  • If you are travelling in the northern hemispheres 'flu season' (UK winter months) you should consider being vaccinated before travel, even if you are travelling to the southern hemisphere (you may catch the infection at airports during transit).
  • If you are travelling in the southern hemispheres 'flu season' (UK summer months) you should consider being vaccinated to avoid infection at your destination.
    • You might not be able to obtain a southern hemisphere flu vaccine in the UK before you travel. In this instance, you should therefore try to arrange for vaccination after arriving at your destination.
  • As flu can occur all year round in the tropics, you should consider vaccination pre travel.
  • The Saudi Ministry of Health recommends seasonal flu vaccine for Hajj attendees before arrival, especially for those in the flu risk groups above.

Am I eligible for free flu vaccine in the UK?

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine this year to protect yourself and others from becoming unwell.

You can check if you are eligible for free flu vaccine on the following websites:

How can I get a flu vaccine for travelling?

If you are not eligible for free flu vaccine in the UK you will have to pay to be vaccinated in a private travel clinic or community pharmacy. Vaccination for travel purposes only will be dependent on availability. Vaccine supplies in the UK will be prioritised for national schedules and high risk groups.

Overview of the Disease

Transmission

  • Flu virus enters the body through the eyes, nose or mouth.
  • When an infected person coughs or sneezes they release millions of tiny droplets containing flu virus that can reach the eyes, nose or mouth of people standing near them.
  • Flu is also caught by touching surfaces that infected droplets have landed on: when you touch these surfaces you can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth and become infected.
  • Crowded conditions and poor hand and respiratory hygiene increase the risk of catching the virus.

Epidemiology

Three different virus types of human flu are recognised: A, B and C.

Seasonal outbreaks of flu occur almost every year and are caused primarily by A and B viruses:

  • November - April in northern hemisphere
  • April - September in southern hemisphere

In tropical areas there is no clear seasonal pattern but peaks tend to occur during the rainy season.

The Illness

Clinical Aspects

If you have been infected with flu virus, you generally start to feel ill within a few days of being infected. Most people begin to feel better within a week or so, although you may feel tired for much longer.

Risk of Severe Illness

Complications of flu mostly affect:

  • those aged 65 or over
  • pregnant women
  • those who have a long-term medical condition or weakened immune system.

Complications can include:

  • chest infections
  • middle ear infection
  • worsening of existing medical conditions
  • pregnancy complications

Signs and Symptoms

Flu can commonly cause any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fever, chills, headache, sore throat, blocked or runny nose, dry chesty cough, aching muscles and joints, tiredness and weakness, diarrhoea or abdominal (tummy) pain, nausea and vomiting.

Treatment

Treatment of flu is mainly supportive. If you are otherwise fit and well, you can usually manage your symptoms at home by:

  • drinking plenty of fluids to keep well hydrated
  • resting and keeping warm
  • taking over the counter medicines such as paracetamol for aches and pains, or for managing a high fever
  • seeking medical advice if your symptoms get worse.

There are antiviral drugs available that can be used to prevent or treat flu but these are only prescribed under special circumstances. You should discuss this with a GP.

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