Flu season's coming: here's how to outrun it

Following the horrific flu season of 2017 - which killed more than 1,000 Australians - it pays to protect yourself ahead of the winter months.

Last year saw 250,000 confirmed cases of flu - the highest on record and almost three times the number of cases seen in 2016.

"The 2017 flu season was the worst we've seen since the 2009 pandemic. Not only that, but in much of Australia it began a month earlier than anticipated and also peaked for longer than usual," says Dr Aifric Boylan, CEO of Qoctor, the quick online doctor.

Dr. Jamie-Lea Whyte from VirtueVax says this year could be particularly interesting, as international attendees of the Commonwealth Games will bring with them northern hemisphere influenza strains in one swift swoop.

Flu season in Australia begins in June and continues until the end of September and October. While the flu risk is currently 'minimal' according to Health Direct, these tips will help you get ahead of the oncoming flu season.

Get vaccinated

Following the tragic flu-related deaths of 2017, the Australian government has announced two new 'turbocharged' flu vaccines will be available to over 65s, pregnant women and some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for free from April.

If you don't fit into one of these groups, it's still worth getting the vaccine. "When lots of people get vaccinated, it protects vulnerable people in the community, as it slows the spread of the flu virus," Dr Aifric advises.

The best time to get immunised is in early autumn when the vaccine becomes available, says Dr Aifric, so that your body can build immunity before flu season hits. Be careful not to get the vaccine more than six months before the end of flu season, however, as your immunity will wane and leave you vulnerable during peak flu season.

"Some people may find they get a sore arm or feel a bit tired or achy after having the flu vaccine and may prefer to get it just before the weekend or on a non-work day," Dr Aifric says.

Serious side effects are extremely rare and Dr Jamie-Lea assures me that - despite the common misconception - you cannot catch influenza from the vaccination itself.

It'll take about two weeks to develop immunity after the flu shot and because your immunity decreases over time and flu strains can mutate each year, you should get vaccinated annually.

Look after yourself

Although the vaccine is the most effective way to safeguard yourself from the flu, winter is a hotbed of illnesses and prioritising your health during the season can give you a better chance at fending off some of the nasty bugs being passed around.

Hygiene should be your number one health focus - always wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitiser before eating and drinking and avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes throughout the day, as this is how viruses and bacteria enter our bodies.

Dr Aifric also advises avoiding people who have flu-like symptoms where possible and, if you're sneezing or coughing, using a tissue or shielding your face in your elbow.

While vitamin companies might lead you to believe otherwise, there is little to no proof to show taking supplements, herbs or vitamins can help prevent the flu, according to both Dr Jamie-Lea and Dr Aifric.

Dr Jamie-Lea also says the commonly-held view of staying warm in the cooler months to safeguard yourself from the flu is an old wives' tale with little to no proof. "There isn't strong evidence to surmise that those who keep warm in heated offices during winter are more protected from illness than those working outdoors."

Getting vaccinated, prioritising your hygiene and staying fit and healthy during the winter months are your best defences against influenza.

Know the signs and symptoms

People often refer to a particularly nasty cold as the flu, but there's a big difference between the two. Colds are very common viruses, with symptoms that are usually milder and different to those associated with the flu.

If you're suffering from a mild to moderate case of influenza, you'll likely experience a runny nose, fever, sore throat, dry cough, muscle aches and fatigue.

What should you do if you get the flu?

If symptoms are mild, the doctors' advice is to stay at home, rest up and drink plenty of fluids. "Paracetamol is usually recommended for aches and pains and nasal sprays or decongestants may ease a runny nose," Dr Aifric says.

"Patients with true influenza cases are often too unwell to leave their bed, especially in the first few days and rest is exactly what their bodies need," says Dr. Jamie-Lea. "As this is a viral illness, expect things to take their course over one to two weeks."

Antibiotics aren't effective in combating influenza, because it's a viral rather than a bacterial infection.

When should you seek medical attention?

If your symptoms are worsening over time and not improving slowly each day, or if you have pre-existing medical issues like asthma, pregnancy or diabetes, then you should see a doctor.

"Certain 'red flag' symptoms mean that immediate medical attention is needed," says Dr Aifric. "These include shortness of breath, dizziness or faintness, confusion, vomiting and sharp chest pains, which can indicate pneumonia."

Stay safe this flu season!

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