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Do I have the flu? And 5 more common questions about influenza

It’s that time of year when many of us will be taking a break for Christmas and catching “the flu” just in time for the holidays. In this post, Dr Derek Gatherer, lead educator on Lancaster University’s free online course “Influenza: How the Flu Spreads and Evolves”, answers six questions about the flu and debunks a few myths along the way.

A lady with the flu sneezing into a tissue

1. Do I have the flu?

Probably not. You may be feeling rather unwell, with that typical pattern of symptoms we know and love, but it’s most likely one of the other respiratory viruses.

Although there are recorded instances of true flu in Europe and North America at the moment, the real flu season hasn’t really got started yet.

So the chances are that whatever is bothering you, is probably not the flu.

2. Can I avoid the flu?

There are no foolproof methods. People with the flu will be out and about, and they will be sneezing onto door handles, handrails and directly onto you. If you are a direct target, then you just have to hope that the virus didn’t get deeply enough into your respiratory system.

On the other hand, the inanimate objects that have been sneezed on need not pose a risk, provided you pay attention to hand hygiene. When you get back from your Christmas or New Year sales shopping, your hands may well be coated in flu virus. But as long as you wash it off, it poses much less of a threat. Keeping hand gel in your pocket is a good idea too.

And “hands down” – keep those fingers out of your mouth, nose and eyes until you’ve washed them.

3. I don’t mind getting the flu. Who cares anyway?

The flu causes an increase in avoidable deaths among the elderly and other vulnerable groups each winter. They care, their families care and, as somebody whose taxes pay for the healthcare system, you should care too.

Your own misery is your own business, but once you are infectious it becomes everybody else’s business too. It might be your grandparent or parent next.

4. So what should I do about the flu?

You should use hand gel and wash your hands as mentioned above, and cover your face when sneezing if you do get it. But there’s one other thing that can help in the first place – vaccination.

5. But isn’t vaccination going to give me the flu?

No. The viruses in the vaccine are not capable of causing an infection. You may feel a little ropey for a day or two afterwards, but that’s actually a good thing, as it shows your immune system is working well and reacting to the vaccine. Many people feel no complications at all. And by getting vaccinated, you are one less victim and one less potential transmitter.

6. Is that Christmas turkey going to give me bird flu?

No, it isn’t. Bird flu in poultry farms is not tolerated, at least in the richer countries. Any farm where there is even a hint of bird flu will have all its chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks or whatever culled immediately, and it will be quarantined until it is certain the outbreak is over.

So don’t worry about bird flu – it isn’t on the supermarket shelves. You should still cook your turkey thoroughly however. Undercooked poultry is a bad idea at any time, but not because of bird flu.

If you’d like to know more about how the flu spreads and evolves, join the free online course “Influenza” now.

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