Seven surprising facts about the flu

Cold and flu season is here. If you're within an at-risk group - which includes the over-65s and those with certain medical conditions, it's even more important to be vaccinated against the flu. Here are seven facts you need to know...

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Title:   Woman blowing her noseCreative image #:  98064930License type:  Royalty-freePhotographer:  Tom GrillCollection:1. The flu is NOT just like having a bad cold
A cold can make you feel miserable, but if you've ever had the flu you'll know it's much worse. Flu symptoms come on suddenly and sometimes severely and may include fever, shivers, headaches and tired and aching muscles, as well as a cough, runny nose and sore throat.

If you get the flu, you are likely to spend three days in bed and take at least a week to recover - though it can take another week or so to feel properly well again. At risk groups are offered a free flu vaccine as they are most at risk of developing serious complications. Each year in the UK, tens of thousands of people are hospitalised with flu and around 8,000 people die due to complications caused by flu.

'People with certain long-term health conditions are at much greater risk of becoming seriously unwell if they catch flu and sadly, many end up in hospital,' says Dr Paul Cosford, Director for Health Protection and Medical Director at Public Health England.

'The best way people can protect themselves from flu is to take up the offer of free vaccination from their GP as soon as it becomes available. Even people whose health conditions are well managed and who lead otherwise healthy lives should still have the flu vaccine – it's free because you need it.'

If you haven't had the flu vaccine yet, it's not too late. It's still worth having even in December or January. Just keep in mind that it takes 10-14 days to become fully effective and it's much better to get it before an outbreak starts.

2. You can now get the flu jab in larger supermarkets
Many pharmacies are now offering walk-in flu vaccinations for adults, which are given by a trained pharmacist. These are available free for at-risk group, or you can pay to have one.

Asda provides the cheapest jab, which costs just £5. Tesco provides a vaccine for £9 in 374 of its pharmacies across the UK, Sainsbury's also charges £9, and Boots' flu jab costs £12.99.

3. Having the flu vaccine will NOT give you flu
The injected flu vaccine contains inactivated flu viruses, so it can't give you flu. Most people don't notice any side effects. Your arm may feel a bit sore at the injection site (but this passes quickly). Some people may get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards, but other reactions are very rare.

The nasal spray vaccine given to children contains live but weakened flu viruses that will not give your child flu.

4. Flu can NOT be treated with antibiotics
If you have flu, taking antibiotics won't help. That's because antibiotics only work against bacteria and the flu is caused by a virus. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines to treat your flu. These don't cure flu, but they can make you less infectious to others and help to speed up your recovery – but only if you take them within a day or two of symptoms starting. If you should develop a bacterial infection as a result of having the flu, you may be given antibiotics.

5. Even if you had the flu vaccine last year, you need it again
The viruses that cause flu can change every year, so you need a vaccination that works against the new viruses. According to NHS Direct, this year's flu vaccine protects against three different flu viruses, including the H1N1 swine flu virus, which is expected to be circulating this year.

Flu is an unpredictable virus and some years, flu season can be much worse than others. As there may be new strains circulating that are more intense than previous years, it's a wise to get the vaccination.

6. You CAN have the flu jab if you're pregnant
Health experts recommend getting the flu vaccine whatever stage of pregnancy you are in. If you're pregnant, you could get very ill if you get flu, which could also be harmful for your baby.

'Women can safely have the vaccine at any point during pregnancy and it can reduce the risk of complications such as pneumonia and premature birth, that can arise as a result of flu,' says Dr Cosford.

'Having the vaccine can also protect your baby against flu after they're born and during the early months of life.

7. Children CAN have the flu vaccine
The NHS offers a special nasal spray vaccine for all healthy two, three and four-year-old children plus children in school years one, two and three.

In addition, children "at risk" of serious illness if they catch the flu are eligible for a flu vaccine on the NHS. This includes children with a pre-existing illness such as a respiratory or neurological condition and children who are having treatment that weakens their immune system such as chemotherapy.

Generally, the vaccine is offered to children aged six months to two years as an injection and to children aged two to 17 years as a nasal spray. The flu vaccine isn't suitable for babies under the age of six months.

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