We see people with influenza or flu all year round, but the numbers peak during autumn and throughout the winter — this is why it is referred to as ‘seasonal flu.’ Flu is different from a cold and is caused by another group of viruses. The symptoms tend to be more severe and last longer.

Flu often causes a high temperature, headache, sore throat and a runny nose. People often feel very tired and complain of general aches and pains. It is also not uncommon to have diarrhoea for the first few days of feeling unwell. People can feel too unwell to leave their home or even get out of bed.


When to See a Doctor

Most people who are otherwise fit and healthy don’t need to see a doctor. Usually all that is needed is some good rest and to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. It can also help to take parcetamol and ibuprofen — these medications when taken regularly can help keep your fever down and relieve aches and pains.

You should consider seeing your doctor if you have flu-like symptoms and you:

— are pregnant
— have other chronic medical problems such as diabetes, asthma, kidney disease or a weakened immune system
— are aged 65 or older
— are aged under five

This is because you are at higher risk of complications related to the flu. Your doctor may consider prescribing antiviral medication such as Tamiflu. There has been a lot of interest in the press recently regarding Tamiflu as over the last three to five years several governments have spent hundreds of millions of US dollars stockpiling the drug in anticipation of a global pandemic despite little evidence for its efficacy. A recent report only found evidence that Tamiflu shortens your illness by 12 hours (from seven days to 6.3 days), there is no good evidence currently to suggest it reduces rates of admission to hospital or the risk of complications. It can also cause nausea, vomiting and psychiatric issues. For this reason many physicians are seriously considering whether it is worth prescribing Tamiflu as the risks may outweigh the benefits.

Antibiotics have no place in the treatment of the flu as it is caused by a virus not a bacteria.


How Long Does Flu Last?

You often feel worse two to three days after developing symptoms, but should begin to feel better after roughly a week, although it is not uncommon to keep feeling tired for much longer.

You are considered infectious from one day before symptoms start and for a further five to six days. Childrenmay remain contagious for longer. For this reason you should not fly during this period or go to school/work. Avoid crowded areas as there is a high risk of passing the virus to others.


Preventing the Spread of Flu

The flu virus is spread in small droplets of fluid coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. You can also spread the virus on your fingers by touching your nose or mouth and then transferring it to other people through touching common surfaces.

The best way to limit this is through good personal hygiene. Always wash your hands regularly with soap and water, regularly clean commonly touched surfaces, use tissues to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and then dispose of them immediately in a bin.


The Flu Vaccine

A new, updated flu vaccine is released annually as the flu virus is commonly changing. This is why it is important to have a new vaccine every year. It is particularly important for those at risk of complications such as children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic health problems.

There is good evidence that the flu vaccine works and will help prevent you getting the flu. It does not protect against every flu virus so there is still a small chance you could catch the flu, but after vaccination is likelier to be a shorter and milder illness.

The new vaccines should be available from late September / early October, so it is a good time to think about whether you want to protect yourself and your family from flu.

Dr Damien Cummins is from the UK and has been working for the International SOS Hanoi Clinic since 2012. His background is general and emergency medicine. International SOS Hanoi Clinic is at 51 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Tel: (04) 3934 0666

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