In 2017, Australia endured one of its worst flu seasons in years, with 250,000 confirmed cases of influenza – and nearly 1100 deaths.
Influenza is a debilitating virus whose symptoms include fever, nasal congestion, ear pressure, sneezing, muscle aches, watering eyes, rashes and fatigue.
It can potentially cause pneumonia, and fatalities are not unusual. Of the flu-related deaths in Australia last year, more than 90 per cent were people aged over 65.
On the doorstep of the 2018 flu season, The New Daily spoke to experts to debunk some common myths about the influenza virus.
Is the flu linked to cold weather?
Emeritus Professor of Virology Christopher Burrell believes the virus is more common in winter months.
“In the winter, people tend to huddle indoors more and there is closer contact between bigger numbers of people, especially in schools and preschools, where much of the spread happens,” Professor Burrell said.
In addition, the virus might survive longer between patients in cool, moist weather – making winter its perfect environment.
Can the influenza vaccine give you the flu?
The flu vaccine does not contain the live virus, so you can’t get sick from having the jab.
After being vaccinated, the body responds by producing antibodies. Protection from the flu starts about a fortnight after vaccination.
The Australian Government recommends annual flu vaccinations for everyone aged from six months. Some people are eligible for free vaccines; they include those over 65, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions.
The European Centre for Disease and Prevention and Control says having the flu vaccination reduces the risk of getting the virus by 60 per cent. However, in a less effective year, the vaccine reduces the risk by only 20 per cent to 30 per cent in the overall population.
It is also important to be vaccinated every year as the virus is constantly mutating.
Are there other ways to prevent getting the flu?
There are ways to minimise spreading the virus, if you have it, or catching it, if you know people who do.
“Especially in the early phase with watery sneezing – when you are most infectious – stay home from work or school,” Professor Burrell said. “Take care with sneezes and dispose of used tissues carefully as they can spread it from person to person.”
He said taking an antiviral drug (such as Tamiflu) can help.
“If given early enough, it will make the infection much milder,” he said. “But it is not practical for large numbers of people to take this for too long”.
Some people use face masks to protect their nose or mouth. Dr Mohammed Alsharifi, from the University of Adelaide said face masks will work if you are exposed to people sneezing.
“It’s the matter of where and how long you wear it,” he said. “The virus can latch on different materials such as benchtops and hands, so people can still be infected despite wearing face masks.”
Additionally, the influenza virus is made up of fine particles that are tiny enough to slip through loose spots on mask. That limits a mask’s ability to prevent you contracting the virus.
How can you cure the flu?
It’s more about treatment than cure, although antiviral drugs will shorten duration of the illness if they are taken early enough.
For the rest, however, Professor Burrell says treatments such as paracetemol (for fever) are most helpful. He also recommends cough suppressants and steam inhalations to help with congestion.
As for household remedies, some foods – including garlic and turmeric – are known to boost the immune system. They “may have an impact but it does not clear the infection”, Dr Alsharifi said.
Can our pets catch the flu and pass it onto humans?
That’s unlikely. Professor Burrell said “some flu strains that infect humans can also infect certain bird species, including ducks, chickens and wild birds and pigs”.
However, the risks in Australia are minimal as we don’t live in close proximity to these animals. There is more of a risk for people in Asian countries, who do sometimes live in close quarters with animals.