Are you concerned about the increased rates of the flu this year? The UK is set to experience record levels of influenza outbreaks across the country. But is the flu really something you need to be concerned about? And what does it mean when people talk about ‘cold and flu’ season?
We answer some of your questions about the flu and the importance of protecting yourself this winter from airborne viruses.
All you need to know about Flu season
Q: When is flu season?
A: In the UK, flu season can run from around September to as late as April.
Infection rates will peak from around October to February during the colder months of the year, but the flu can be prevalent for over seven months.
Q: Why does the flu return year-on-year?
A: The flu virus is present throughout the year, but as you may have noticed, it is more common during the winter months. There are a number of theories for why this is, but many experts agree that the flu likes cold, dry weather. Plus, people tend to gather indoors during the colder months, meaning it increases the likelihood of transmitting from person to person. This doesn’t just apply to the flu though; this is true of most respiratory diseases.
Another thing to consider is that during the winter months, people experience a drop in Vitamin D levels due to decreased levels of sunlight. Studies suggest that Vitamin D plays a big part in how our bodies fight illnesses.
Q: What exactly is the flu?
A: The flu virus, as we know it, is usually caused by different types of the Influenza virus. The flu you will be most familiar with is caused by Influenza A and Influenza B.
These influenza viruses are not a single species but rather a collection of subtypes, lineages, clades, and subclades of influenza viruses related to one another. When a flu pandemic strikes, as it does every few decades, Influenza A is the virus that spreads throughout the population. On the other hand, Influenza B continues to affect many individuals while receiving less attention from the media.
Q: What are common symptoms attributed to the flu?
A: According to the NHS website, flu symptoms include;
- High temperature over 38ºC
- Increased levels of tiredness or exhaustion
- A dry cough
- Body aching
- A headache
- Restless sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach ache
Although children may exhibit symptoms differently including ear pain, these symptoms will be similar in adults and children.
However, in some cases, you might not be symptomatic at all.
Q: How is the flu spread?
A: When infected individuals cough or sneeze without covering their noses or mouths, the influenza virus is released into the air around them in the form of droplets. The virus is then inhaled by anyone in close proximity to this person, resulting in another infected person, thus creating a chain of infection as the next person may infect others in the same way. Alternatively, these droplets can fall onto surfaces, causing people to become infected when they touch contaminated surfaces and transmit the virus into their nose, eyes or mouth.
Did you know flu droplets can travel up to 6ft away via one single cough or sneeze? So remember, keep those tissues handy! If you don’t have a tissue, cover your mouth and nose by coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow.
Q: How long is an infected person with the flu contagious for?
A: People can transfer the flu to others one day prior to their symptoms showing and up to seven days after falling ill. Children and adults with compromised immune systems may remain contagious for a more extended period.
Sadly, many people are contagious before they realise they have even caught the flu, meaning they cannot avoid spreading it around.
Q: How long does the flu last?
A: The onset of the flu can develop very rapidly after being exposed to the virus and commonly lasts around a week. Although if you’re elderly, pregnant, suffer from a pre-existing condition or have a high Body Mass Index (BMI) recovery can take longer.
Q: Is the flu serious?
A: There are many myths surrounding death from flu. But yes, the flu is serious and should be treated as such.
Typically, many people brush off the flu as something they need not be concerned about, but it is deadly. Globally influenza causes between 290,000 and 650,00 deaths each year. In the UK, 26,398 people died due to Influenza and Pneumonia in 2019.
Did you know that the flu has caused four significant pandemics in the past 100 years, and the 1918 flu pandemic killed more people than the entire World War 1 conflict? Just to give you some perspective. While modern medicine has progressed since 1918, the flu remains just as deadly to this day.
Q: Who is most at risk from the flu?
A: A standard train of thought is that only those with compromised immune systems are at risk from severe illness and death from the influenza virus. And to a certain extent, this is true.
Everyone is at risk of potentially suffering complications from the flu, however, the NHS classifies those who are at higher risk as:
- People over 50 years of age
- Those that are pregnant
- You are asthmatic
- Have lung conditions
- You’re diabetic
- Take medication, making you immunocompromised or have a condition affecting your immune system.
- Have had a stroke
- Have a kidney or liver condition
Sadly, not falling into one of these groups doesn’t make you immune from catching or developing severe illnesses or conditions from the influenza virus. Much as we have seen recently with the current COVID-19 pandemic, even fit and healthy people can be affected more severely than they initially thought.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that amongst the most common flu complications are dehydration, pneumonia and the worsening of long term health conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
Q: Why did the flu disappear in 2020?
A: In short, it didn’t. While cases of COVID-19 soared among the general population from March 2020 onward, the reality is that this was naturally the end of the UK flu season or peak flu season anyway.
As winter 2020 rolled in, more people were still practising increased levels of hygiene and social distancing along with other measures such as wearing masks and avoiding meeting indoors in large groups. During this time, the tier systems that were implemented in the UK to restrict the spread of COVID-19 also prevented the common cold and flu strains from infecting people which they typically would have caught without the additional restrictions.
The reality is that SARS-CoV-2 and influenza work in similar ways when infecting a host, meaning that the measures put in place to restrict COVID-19 spreading also worked to stop the flu from spreading too.
Officials fear that the winter cold and flu season for 2021/22 could cause up to 60,000 deaths as people integrate back into society with reduced herd immunity due to fewer people catching the flu the previous year, leaving more people exposed.
Q: How can you protect yourself and others from the flu?
A: Firstly, getting your flu jab is one of the best ways to protect yourself against catching or developing severe issues associated with the flu. The UK Government is pushing the flu jab out to over half of the population in 2021 to help protect more people than ever as concerns are deep for how severe it could be this year.
Practising good hygiene should also be maintained. Everyone is familiar with the “Hands, Face, Space” motto pushed out to help protect people against COVID-19 in 2020. This is still applicable for the flu too.
- Washing your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds can break down the outer membrane of the virus particles to neutralise it.
- Avoid touching your face. Studies have suggested people touch their faces up to 23 times per hour. Washing your hands regularly, such as when you come in contact with other people, surfaces, or communal objects, can help avoid transferring any potential risk from a third party to your hands and onto your face.
- Sneeze and cough into a tissue and dispose of it immediately. If you do not have a tissue to hand, use your elbow, not your hands; this way, any virus particles will be transferred back to you and not to anyone or anything else.
- Use antibacterial hand gel or sanitisers. Early 2020 saw restrictions placed on stock of antibacterial gel as people rushed out to buy it to protect themselves. These days supplies in the UK are plentiful, and most establishments have access points set up to allow for frequent sanitising of hands when on their premises.
- When someone is infected, cleaning your home using antibacterial products can reduce the risk of others in the household catching it, as can avoiding being in enclosed spaces with a person who has the flu. Open windows to ventilate indoor spaces to help disperse particles quicker.
- To support cleaning regimes and ventilation, air purifiers have been proven effective to reduce virus particles in the air and on surfaces to provide continuous indoor protection.
Q: Why is there no cure for the flu?
A: The influenza virus goes through a process known as antigenic drift. Each time the virus replicates, little mistakes or changes in the antigens can occur (proteins on the outside of the virus that are recognised by the immune system). Eventually, the accumulation of these differences reaches the point where the immune system no longer identifies the flu as a virus that it has previously encountered. As a result of this process, it is extremely difficult to develop a single vaccine against all conceivable flu strains in preparation for the forthcoming flu season.
Scientists collect thousands of genetic samples that have been sequenced in an attempt to forecast which variants will be the most prevalent during the next flu season. They then develop a single vaccination that will protect against all of the new strains they’ve predicted. In most cases, flu vaccines protect two forms of influenza A and two types of influenza B.
Q: What is the flu vaccine, and why do I need it?
A: The flu vaccine is administered in two different ways in the UK. There is your standard injection and a nasal spray. The nasal spray is administered to children and babies and is a live attenuated form of the virus. It can take around two weeks to work fully, and children who have had this vaccination are less likely to become seriously ill from the flu. There are a few providers of the flu vaccine, which you can find out more about in this chart.
For the adult injection of the flu vaccine, use an inactivated virus. The virus used is essentially dead but contains the outer protein of the virus shell to introduce your body to the protein. This then trains our body to attack proteins wearing this shell, thus preventing you from becoming seriously ill with the flu. Again it can take around two weeks for the protection to take effect, and contrary to popular opinion, the flu jab does not give you the flu, although you can experience mild side effects. If you are concerned about potential side effects, you can discuss this with your GP, who can recommend the best flu vaccine for you.
You can receive your flu jab at your GP surgery, pharmacies, hospital appointments or with a midwife if you are pregnant, and they offer this service. If you aren’t eligible for a free flu jab, private vaccinations cost around £14.99.
Q: Can air purifiers help prevent the flu from spreading?
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to avoid people who are ill. After all, they still need to go to work or go out in public. But aside from cutting yourself off from society, there are a few other things you can do to improve your chances of warding the dreaded lurgy this winter or even spreading it to those around you.
- Immune Boosting Supplements – There is a range of products on the market you can take all year round to support your immune system. Zinc, Vitamin D, Echinacea, Vitamin C, and garlic are all thought to support the immune system.
- Wear Masks – It has been a requirement in the UK recently to wear face masks when out in public. And while this has changed now, countries such as China have long worn face masks in public well before COVID-19. The reason is that masks prevent droplets from entering the air, thus reducing transmission from person to person. While masks alone are not 100% effective, if you are ill and need to leave your home for any reason, a face mask can protect those around you and reduce the risk of flu particles in the air coming into contact with your mouth and nose too.
- Open Windows– Opening windows and ventilating indoor spaces, can help to disperse virus particles and prevent them from lingering in the air. This lowers the risk of them being transmitted to others.
- Stay Home – Current reports suggest flu vaccinations could save the economy almost £29 million in averted sick days. But the best course of action is not dragging yourself into work if you are contagious. If you work in an office, chances are, more than one person will succumb to the effects of the virus costing the company more money. So stay home, get the flu jab if possible and help reduce the spread of seasonal germs and bugs.
Q: What else can I do to protect myself from the flu?
As many of us spend more than 90% of our time indoors, it’s important to protect the indoor air we breathe from viruses like influenza that is the cause of the flu. To mitigate the risk on top of conventional cleaning and ventilation, air purifiers have presented a strong case to prevent virus particles from lingering in the air and on surfaces.
Most standard air purifiers are passive, meaning it draws the air through a HEPA filter or similar. This can be helpful for reducing certain particles in the air but this method is slow and less effective at reducing the smallest viruses.
In recent times we’ve discovered that the outdoor air contains hydroxyls, which are molecules formed by sunlight and water vapour that break down bacteria, viruses, mould, and fungi. This has led to a generation of active purifiers that reproduce this natural effect by generating hydroxyls indoors. The hydroxyl molecules fill the room and circulate the indoor air ready to immediately react when virus particles enter the space from an infected person. These molecules seek out the virus particles and instantly inactivate them on contact. ActivePure air and surface purifiers use a patented technology that does exactly this. The technology has been scientifically proven safe and effective at reducing viruses, including various forms of influenza, 24/7 in occupied spaces.