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Colds and flu
A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause a blocked nose followed by a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough.
There is no cure for a cold, but you can look after yourself at home and there is usually no need to see a GP as it should clear within a week or two.
Further information about the common cold can be found on the NHS Choices website. This includes information about symptoms, treatment at home, when to see your GP and how you can stop a cold from spreading.
Seasonal flu occurs every year, usually in the winter. It is important to make sure you’re protected; the best way is by having the flu vaccination. Every year a large number of people die from complications caused by flu. Flu is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus and spreads rapidly through the coughs and sneezes of infected people.
You can find frequently asked questions about flu below.
How can I protect myself against flu?
It’s very important that people who are ‘at risk’ of flu (see below 'who is at greater risk from flu' section) have their free seasonal flu vaccination every year.
Each year, the viruses that are most likely to cause flu are identified in advance and vaccines are made to match them as closely as possible. The vaccines are recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The best way to avoid flu is to have your flu vaccination, but you can also protect yourself by practising good hand hygiene with the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ technique. This means carrying tissues, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue, disposing of the tissue after one use, and cleaning hands as soon as possible with soap and water or an alcohol hand gel.
Isn't flu just a heavy cold?
No. Colds are much less serious and usually start gradually with a stuffy or runny nose and a sore throat.
People sometimes think a bad cold is flu, but having flu is often much worse than a cold – you may need to stay in bed for a few days if you have flu.
Some people are more susceptible to the effects of seasonal flu. For them it can increase the risk of developing more serious illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia or make existing conditions worse.
In the worst cases, seasonal flu can result in a stay in hospital, or even death.
How do I know when I have got flu?
Symptoms of flu are more severe than a common cold, causing fever and aching muscles. You will not be able to do your usual activities.
Flu symptoms hit you suddenly and severely. They usually include fever (a temperature of 38°c (100.4°F or above), aching muscles chills, headaches, and you can often get a cough, sore throat or stomach upset at the same time. For most people, seasonal flu is unpleasant but not serious and they recover within a week.
Because flu is caused by viruses and not bacteria, antibiotics won’t treat it. Don’t wait until there is a flu outbreak this winter – contact your GP, practice nurse or local pharmacy now to get your seasonal flu vaccination.
Why is a seasonal flu vaccination my best protection against flu?
The vaccination will help your body to fight flu viruses. Your body starts making antibodies against the viruses about a week to ten days after the injection.
These antibodies help to protect you for a whole year against similar seasonal flu viruses that you may come into contact with.
The seasonal flu vaccine will not protect you against the common cold or other winter viruses.
Who should have a seasonal flu vaccination?
You should have the seasonal flu vaccination if you:
- have a serious medical condition which puts you at greater risk
- are 65 or over
- live in a residential or nursing home
- are the main carer of an older or disabled person
- are pregnant.
Paid and unpaid carers should also consider having the seasonal flu vaccination to reduce their chances of getting flu. They can then continue to help those they look after.
Who is at greater risk from flu?
Even if you feel healthy, you should definitely consider having the free seasonal flu vaccination to protect yourself if you have:
- a heart problem
- a chest complaint or breathing difficulties, including bronchitis or emphysema
- kidney disease
- lowered immunity due to disease or treatment (such as steroid medication or cancer treatment)
- liver disease
- had a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
- a neurological condition, for example multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy or severe learning disability
- a problem with your spleen, for example sickle cell disease, or you have had your spleen removed.
I am pregnant. Do I need a flu vaccination this year?
Yes. Pregnant women should be offered the inactivated flu vaccination. This is because pregnant women who catch flu are at an increased risk of severe disease and flu-related hospital admissions; it can be safely and effectively administered at any stage of pregnancy. There are no known problems from giving the seasonal flu vaccine to women who are pregnant.
Talk to your GP or midwife if you would like more information about the flu vaccination.
Flu vaccine for children
An annual nasal spray flu vaccine is available for all children aged two and three years old as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.
In some parts of the country, pre-school and primary school children between the ages of four and 10 will also be offered the vaccine.
Over time, as the programme rolls out, all children between the ages of two and 16 will be vaccinated against flu each year with the nasal spray. The nasal spray flu vaccine is also for children aged two to 18 who are ‘at risk’ from flu, such as children with long-term health conditions. The vaccine is given as a single dose of nasal spray squirted up each nostril. Not only is it needle-free, the nasal spray works even better than the injected flu vaccine with fewer side effects. It’s quick and painless and will mean your child is less likely to become ill if they come into contact with the flu virus. Its brand name is Fluenz*.
The injectable flu vaccine will continue to be offered to over-65s, pregnant women and adults and babies aged six months to two years with long-term medical conditions.
*Please note: the Fluenz nasal spray contains tiny amounts of pork gelatine. Although certifed as acceptable by many faith groups including representatives from Jewish and Muslim communities, some parents may want to balance the constraints of their personal beliefs against the benefits of vaccination.
Children with long-term health conditions
Children with long-term health conditions are at extra risk from flu and it’s especially important that they are vaccinated each year.
Children at risk of flu are already offered an annual flu injection. As the nasal spray is more effective than the injected vaccine, children aged between two and 18 with long-term health conditions are now being offered the annual flu nasal spray instead of the injection. Those children with long-term health conditions aged between six months and two years will continue to be offered the annual injectable flu vaccine.
Neither the nasal spray nor the injectable flu vaccine is suitable for babies under the age of six months.
Are there children who shouldn't have the flu vaccination?
There are a few children who should avoid the nasal spray flu vaccine.
It’s not suitable for children who have:
- a weakened immune system
- egg allergy
- severe asthma (children with mild or moderate asthma are able to have the flu nasal spray)
- active wheezing at the time of vaccination.
Children unable to have the nasal spray vaccine may be able to have the flu injection instead.
Fluenz has a very good safety profile. It’s been widely used in the US for more than 10 years and no safety concerns have been raised so far. The vaccine contains live, but weakened, forms of flu virus that do not cause flu in children who receive it.
What to do if your child has side effects
If your child has a runny nose after their flu vaccination, simply wipe their nose with a tissue and then discard it. Remember: catch it, bin it, kill it.
If your child develops a fever after their flu vaccination, keep them cool by:
- making sure they don’t have too many layers of clothes or blankets on
- giving them cool drinks.
You could also give them infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce their fever.
If you’re worried about your child, trust your instincts and speak to your doctor or call NHS 111.
Call the doctor immediately if, at any time, your child:
- has a temperature of 39°C or above, or
- has a fit.
How do I get the flu vaccine for my child?
You’ll be automatically contacted by your GP or your child’s school in September/October about getting your child vaccinated before the winter. If you don’t hear anything, or you want more information about when and how your child will be vaccinated against flu, talk to your GP, practice nurse or your child’s school nurse.