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How is flu spread?

Mum laughing with kids on sofa as they talk about how is flu spread
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In the UK, flu season runs from December to March (although outbreaks can occur from early autumn to late spring). Flu can lead to serious complications, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. It may also worsen pre-existing health conditions and lead to dangerous complications in pregnancy.

The flu virus exists year-round, but outbreaks are most common in the winter and early spring. It’s thought that the flu virus survives for longer in cold, dry air, and that it spreads more easily in the winter months as we spend more time inside in close contact with one another.

If you’re concerned about catching the flu this winter, read on for answers to some common questions about flu. Learn how the virus is transmitted and whether you should get the flu vaccine. The more you know about how it’s spread, the easier it will be to stay protected.

Catching seasonal flu

The flu virus is primarily spread through the coughs and sneezes of those with the infection. When you cough or sneeze, droplets carrying the virus shoot out from your mouth and nose, and can travel around six feet. The droplets hang in the air before settling on surfaces.

If someone with the flu sneezes or coughs into their hands they can contaminate surfaces when they touch them. That’s why you should wash your hands regulalry and use tissues.

If you’re standing close to someone when they sneeze or cough, there’s a high risk that you'll inhale some of these droplets and become infected. However, this is not the only way flu can be transmitted.

The flu virus can survive outside of the body for up to 24 hours, which means you risk catching the flu when you touch contaminated surfaces. Surfaces which are easily contaminated with the flu virus include door handles, telephones, keyboards, and remote controls. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your nose or mouth, you could become infected.

Is flu airborne or carried on droplets?

Most experts agree that flu is a “droplet spread” infection, rather than an airborne infection. This means it is carried on large droplets of bodily fluid which only travel short distances.

In recent years, some studies – including one at the University of Maryland – have reported that the flu virus is airborne, and can be transmitted through breathing alone. However, the current guidance from institutions such as the CDC and the NHS is that it is primarily spread through droplets.

Avoiding seasonal flu

There are some things you can do to lower your chance of catching the flu and other seasonal illnesses:

  • Wash your hands regularly. If you can’t use soap and water, then use hand sanitiser
  • Keep surfaces around your home clean
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • When coughing or sneezing cover your mouth with a tissue
  • Avoid getting too close to people who are sick

The best way to avoid catching seasonal flu is to get the flu jab – in particular for those with pre-existing health conditions, pregnant or are over 50. For adults, the flu jab is a single injection (children usually receive the vaccine in the form of a nasal spray). To be properly protected during the flu season you should ideally receive the vaccine in the autumn, although it’s better to receive it later than not at all.

You're eligible for a free NHS flu vaccine if you:

  • are 50 and over (including those who were 50 by 31 March 2022)
  • have certain health conditions
  • are pregnant
  • are in long-stay residential care
  • receive a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick
  • live with someone who is more likely to get infections (such as someone who has HIV, has had a transplant or is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis)
  • are a frontline health or social care worker

If you fall into one of these categories, you can book a free flu jab through LloydsPharmacy. If you're not eligible, you can pay to get a flu jab. Find out more by visiting the LloydsPharmacy flu vaccine service page.

Each winter, different flu viruses become prevalent. In response to this, a new flu vaccine is created every single year. This means that, to stay protected, you should get the flu vaccine annually.

Because there are many different strains of seasonal flu, you should still try to prevent catching the flu, even if you've had the vaccine. If you’re sick with the flu you should take time off work and stay home until you feel well. You can help yourself feel better by resting, keeping warm and staying hydrated. You can also take flu remedies and painkillers to help ease symptoms. Make sure to read the information leaflet before taking flu treatments.

Book your flu jab at LloydsPharmacy

What is the difference between seasonal flu and stomach flu?

Stomach flu and seasonal flu are not caused by the same virus. Stomach (or gastric) flu is a common nickname given to stomach bugs. Although they are both viral illnesses, and more prevalent in winter months, they’re not the same illness.

 

Seasonal flu

Stomach flu

Also known as

Influenza

Viral gastroenteritis

Cause

Virus, influenza virus

Virus, commonly norovirus

Symptoms

  • High temperature
  • Aching muscles or joints
  • Tiredness
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea and/stomach cramps

 

Treatment

  • Rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Over the counter treatments may alleviate symptoms
  • Rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat plain food - pasta, bread, rice. Avoid spices/intense flavours
  • Over the counter treatments may alleviate symptoms

 

How long am I contagious for with the flu?

The average adult is thought to be contagious for around seven days, beginning one day before symptoms start. Usually you’ill continue to be contagious for five to seven days after you start to feel ill. You'll be most contagious in the first three to four days of your illness.

For children or people with weakened immune systems, you may be contagious for longer.

Who gets flu the most often?

Certain people will be more susceptible to becoming seriously ill from the flu because of their age or physical condition. You are most at risk if you are:

  • 65 or older
  • Pregnant
  • Living with health conditions such as:
    • Asthma
    • Kidney disease
    • Diabetes
    • HIV

Can you be exposed to the flu and not get it?

Some people can be infected with the flu, but never realise as they don’t experience any symptoms. In this instance, a person who has the virus in their system can still pass it on to other people – even if they do not feel ill.

Can flu be transmitted through clothing?

The flu virus can be spread on surfaces, including clothing. If someone in your household has flu, you’ll want to clean any surfaces after they have touched them, including communal areas like bathrooms. You could also regularly wash their clothing and bedding.

How long should you stay home with flu?

Most people will start to feel better after a week, although you may exprience symptoms and tiredness for longer. Generally, you should stay home until you begin to feel well again.

Remember going into work or trying to socialise when you have the flu means you risk passing the virus on to other people. It’s always better to stay home and wait for your symptoms to pass.

How can I build up my immunity to the flu?

Each year, different strains of the virus become more prevalent. Every time your body is exposed to a new strain of the flu, your immune system has to release new antibodies to fight the infection. These antibodies will not necessarily provide any protection for future strains of the virus, which is why you can get sick with the flu year after year.

Apart from general good health, the only way to prepare your immune system to fight off the flu is to get the flu vaccine before flu season begins. It’s normally recommended that you get the vaccine in October or November. Flu vaccinations are available at LloydsPharmacy stores. Find your nearest pharmacy today.

Seasonal flu can be serious. If you catch the flu, the best thing you can do is stay home and rest to allow yourself to recover. You shouldn’t go into work or socialise, and you should minimise contact with other people.

Vaccinations for flu are available for both adults and children. Find more information on staying healthy this season, with advice on common issues such as treating sinus pain, and over the counter flu remedies

References

www.cdc.gov/flu/resource-center/images/multi-language-pdfs/contamination_cleaning.pdf