Influenza (shortened to ‘flu’) is a common and highly infectious viral illness and can be particularly troublesome for older adults. Robert Mair reports.

Flu is an illness of the upper respiratory tract and can also affect the lungs and chest areas. Due to its symptoms it is often mistaken for a heavy cold although the symptoms are distinct and viruses that cause it are different.

The biggest known flu pandemic in history was the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, which killed 40-100 million people – up to 5% of the world’s population. While subsequent pandemics have not been as severe, outbreaks still occur, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic.


There are several symptoms of flu, including:

  • fever (temperature or 38oc (100.4of) or more)
  • aching muscles
  • lethargy and tiredness
  • sneezing and coughing
  • sore throat
  • runny or blocked nose
  • difficulty sleeping
  • nausea
  • diarrhoea or vomiting
  • appetite loss

In most cases symptoms peak after 2-3 days and you should start to feel better in 5-8 days, however, coughs and tiredness often linger for a few weeks.


For most, a few days resting at home, keeping warm and drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration is the best treatment.  Paracetamol or Ibuprofen can help lower the temperature and provide relief from aches.

There would be no need to visit your GP if you are otherwise fit and healthy, however you should visit your GP if you experience flu-like symptoms and you:

  • Are 65 years or over
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a long-term medical condition such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease or neurological diseases
  • Know your immune system is weak

Your GP may prescribe antiviral medication if you fall in one of these groups.


Good hygiene is the most effective way of avoiding catching and preventing the spread of flu:

  • Washing hands regularly
  • Cleaning surfaces like your keyboard, telephone and door handles clean to remove germs
  • Covering your mouth and nose with tissues when you sneeze or cough
  • Binning the tissues afterwards

In recent years a flu vaccination was made available free on the NHS from October onwards to high-risk people, to protect them from flu:

  • Adults over 65 years
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with an ongoing serious medical condition
  • Individuals living in a residential or nursing care home
  • Healthcare professionals

It should be noted that the vaccination must be taken annually to be fully effective.

Antiviral medication is recommended for over 65’s if all the following are true:

  • There’s a lot of flu around
  • You have a long-term medical condition such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease or neurological diseases
  • You have been in contact with someone with a flu-like illness

Antiviral medication may be offered to residential or nursing home residents particularly as flu can spread quickly if one or more have been in contact with someone confirmed as having flu.