Influenza, or “flu” as it is more widely known, is a common viral illness spread through coughing and sneezing – that much we all know. What fewer people are familiar with is, firstly, the fact that the term influenza actually refers to a group of viruses; and secondly, how it differs from similar illnesses such as the common cold.
Most worrying is the fact that many people are unaware how the flu can lead to life-threatening medical complications.
As anyone over 65 will be aware, there is a vaccine (or “flu jab”) available on the NHS, with a new one developed every year to tackle the most prevalent strains of the virus. According to recent reports, though, a Korean pharmaceutical company called Celltrion is close to finalising a universal influenza treatment that would be effective in fighting off a variety of different strains – including the deadly avian (or “bird flu”) subtypes. The medicine, an antibody labelled as CT-P27, is currently being prepared for another phase of trials, and has already been shown to fight off strains of the virus that are resistant to existing antivirals.
If these upcoming trials are successful, Celltrion is hoping that their antibody will be fast-tracked onto the market – however, it’s unclear how long that will take. What is clear is that until an effective universal influenza treatment is made widely available, more education into the risks of flu is needed. In 2015, the number of flu-related deaths in the UK hit a 12-year high.
Causes & Symptoms of Influenza
The flu is caused by a group of viruses that all attack the body in the same way. Certain strains are worse than others, and as a group the viruses have a more severe effect on the body than any of the cold viruses.
Influenza is spread through the droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person when they sneeze or cough. You can take in the virus by breathing in these droplets, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth or nose. The virus is very infectious, and outside of the body it can survive for up to 24 hours. This is why it’s important to wash your hands frequently, and keep surfaces clean, if you are around someone who is infected.
Once inside the body, the flu starts to cause symptoms within a few days. Unlike the common cold, it tends to come on quickly and prevents you from taking part in your regular daily activities.
The main symptoms of influenza are:
- Feeling tired and weak
- Aches and pains
- Chesty cough
Some people experience the symptoms of the common cold (sneezing, blocked nose, sore throat) and others may feel sick, vomit and have diarrhoea. Whatever your symptoms, they should start to pass within a week – if they don’t start to get better or if they worsen over time, it’s important to see a doctor.
The recommended treatment for influenza is usually self-care at home. If you have the flu but you’re otherwise healthy, you should be able to treat your symptoms by doing the following:
- Staying home from work
- Keeping warm
- Drinking plenty of water
- Self-medicating with over-the-counter painkillers
Antibiotics are ineffective in treating viral infections such as influenza. However, antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza can be prescribed; this sort of treatment usually shortens the illness by a couple of days.
If you’re self-treating at home and you start having chest pains, experiencing shortness of breath or coughing up blood you should see a doctor immediately as this is a sign that the illness has progressed and requires medical attention.
High-Risk Groups for Influenza
There are several groups that are particularly high-risk for influenza complications:
- Pregnant women
- Anyone with an existing lung, heart, kidney, liver or neurological disease
- Anyone with diabetes
- Anyone with a weakened immune system (e.g. from HIV or chemotherapy)
- Anyone with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
It’s advised that the people in these groups receive their annual flu vaccination, making sure that they get it every single year to update their immunity to various strains.
To find out more about influenza and the antivirals that can be prescribed for its treatment, consult this information page from Private Doctor Direct.