Influenza (the flu) is a viral infection that can affect the whole body. Although the symptoms are similar, it is much more debilitating than a cold and comes on very quickly. Flu is often accompanied by a high temperature that lasts several days, headaches, extreme tiredness and aching limbs. Around 1 in 4 New Zealanders are infected with influenza each year, some will just carry the infection and not feel sick, others end up in hospital and many die (the flu accounts for 1.8% of deaths in New Zealand). Even if you avoid a hospital stay, influenza can keep you in bed for a week or more, preventing you from doing the things you need and love to do.
Occasionally the flu can be complicated by a bacterial infection such as bronchitis, pneumonia, throat infections, middle ear infections and sinusitis. Children can also be affected, watch for signs of a very sore throat, vomiting, high fever, a blotchy rash, stiff neck, joint or muscle pains, aversion to light, a strange high-pitched cry, extreme lethargy or irritability. In these cases, see your doctor immediately.
Preventing influenza is a job for the whole community. The Influenza Immunisation Programme aims to vaccinate 75% of adults over 65 years and distribute more than 1.2 million influenza vaccines yearly to protect more than 25% of the community. The SHIVERS study in Auckland found that 4 out of 5 children and adults with influenza in 2015 did not have symptoms. These people still carried the infection and transmitted it to others by direct contact, via objects or through airborne particles containing the virus. Healthy adults with influenza are infectious for up to 5 days and children for up to two weeks. We know that vaccination is the most effective way to reduce the rates of influenza and therefore, protect those in our community who are most at risk from it.
Practicing good hygiene when you have the flu also prevents the spread of the infection. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing and put your used tissue in the bin. Remember to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing with warm soapy water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
The flu vaccine is an inactivated form of the virus given to trigger your body to build immunity to it so if you are exposed again, then you can fight it off quickly and without significant symptoms. As the flu virus mutates every year and protection lessens over time it is important to have vaccine administered annually. Flu vaccination is recommended and free for those most at risk, including pregnant women; people over 65 years; people with diabetes, most heart or lung conditions and some other illnesses. Community pharmacies can provide funded vaccination to pregnant women and people over 65 years. Unfunded vaccinations are available to adults over 13 years. Children and those with eligible health conditions, should see their doctor.
Autumn is the best time of year to be vaccinated to allow the vaccine to work before the flu season starts. Vaccines are expected mid-April this year. Book yours here.
What to expect with vaccination
It is not uncommon to experience some mild side effects after vaccination, but these usually go away within a few days. If you have pain and/or redness at the site of the injection, hold a cold damp cloth over the area. If you feel unwell or tired, rest and drink plenty of fluids. If you have a fever or aching muscles, paracetamol or ibuprofen may offer pain relief. As always, follow the instructions for the correct way to take these medicines. Please let us know at the pharmacy or see your doctor if you experience more severe reactions after vaccination. Just to be sure you don’t have a severe reaction, it is recommended that you wait in the pharmacy or surgery for 20 minutes after vaccination.
The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not against a cold or other viruses or diseases in circulation so you might still get affected by colds this Winter. Buccaline or supplements may help to boost your immunity through the cooler months. If you are prone to infections, it is a good idea to check your levels of zinc and correct any deficiencies. In the absence of deficiencies, vitamin A, C, selenium and zinc may be helpful in reducing the intensity and duration of winter colds. Go Healthy Vir Defence combines these and herbs to help prevent or treat a cold or flu.