What Is the Flu?
Flu, otherwise known as influenza, is a common illness which affects the body’s respiratory tract consisting of the nose, throat, and lungs. It causes inflammation of the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, and is caused by viruses invading the body. Flu is highly contagious. It can potentially have complications leading to severe outcomes, requiring hospitalization and even death in certain cases.
Those who are more at risk of flu complications are those who have pre-existing health conditions, such as in individuals like the elderly, and young children below the age of five. Other examples of people who may be more severely affected by flu are listed below:
- Persons aged 65 years and older
- Children between the ages of six months to five years
- Adults and children who have chronic disorders of the lungs (including asthma) or heart
- Adults and children who suffer from chronic metabolic diseases (including diabetes)
- People with kidney malfunctioning
- Those with a blood disorder such as thalassemia
- People who have lower immune resistance due to medications
- People who have weakened immune system due to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection
- Children and teenagers aged six months to 18 years who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy (they are at risk of Reye syndrome, which is a deadly disease that affects all body organs especially the liver and brain, after flu infection)
- Women who are in the second or third trimester of pregnancy
Flu complications may involve the following:
- Ear infection
There are periods in the year whereby the flu is more prevalent, and these are known as flu seasons. In Singapore, the flu season generally occurs between December and February, and another peak season is from May to July. During these times, people are more likely to contract the flu as the virus is at its peak during these periods.
How is Flu Spread?
Flu is thought to spread from person to person. When an individual with the flu sneezes, coughs, or talks, he or she produces moisture droplets which could contain the flu virus. These droplets then land in the noses or mouths of people nearby, and are inhaled into the lungs. It can spread to others from a distance about 6 feet (about 1.8 m) away. Flu can also be spread by touching a surface with the flu virus, and transferring it to inside the body by touching the mouth, nose, or eyes, though this method of transmission is not as likely to pass on the flu as coughing or sneezing does.
People with flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their flu starts. A sick person can infect another healthy person up to five to seven days after becoming sick. In children and people with weakened immune systems, they could be contagious for a longer period of time than seven days. Sometimes, flu symptoms kick in a while later after the person has gotten the flu bug. Even in this period where no symptoms are shown, the person is still able to pass on the flu virus to others.
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Differences Between Cold and Flu
The symptoms of cold and flu can appear very similar. How can we tell the difference between contracting a cold or the flu? Generally, flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms. Individuals with colds are more likely to have milder symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, and do not result in complications usually. Flu has a greater chance of flu becoming more severe, resulting in more serious health problems.
Symptoms of flu include fever or feeling the chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, fatigue and headaches. When compared to cold symptoms, people with colds often show symptoms of a runny and stuffy nose, and do not present with the other symptoms above.
After the flu virus enters the body, flu symptoms may surface in about one to four days’ time. Flu symptoms usually appear suddenly without warning. Some symptoms of flu are:
- High fever (but not everyone with a flu may come with a fever)
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Stuffy noses
- Nasal discharge
- General feeling of weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach symptoms e.g. diarrhea, stomach pains, vomiting
Types of Flu
There are three types of flu viruses which cause flu in people: Type A, B, and C viruses. Flu A and B are responsible for seasonal outbreaks and widespread outbreaks of flu in a place. Flu A can affect animals and humans, but Flu B can only affect humans. Between the Type A and B flu viruses, Flu A causes more severe cases and complications. Type C Flu virus is less severe than the other two types of flu.
When to See a Doctor for Flu?
Most people who get flu have mild illness and do not require medical care. Instead, rest is recommended for recovery. However, if there may be a higher risk of flu-related complications due to a pre-existing condition, or if the illness is a cause of concern, do make a trip to visit the doctor, or book a teleconsultation online to see a doctor from home.
Seek medical attention immediately if the following signs are observed:
- Difficulties breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen (stomach)
- Persistent vomiting
- Sudden giddiness
- Symptoms of flu which improve, but suddenly return with increasing severity e.g. high fever, worse cough
- Difficulties breathing
- Skin colour turning blue
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up and interacting with others
- Fever with a skin rash
- Irritability, refuse to be held
Treatment for Flu
Often, treatment for flu, if mild, involves rest and recuperation at home. Antiviral medications can be consumed for relief of symptoms.
How Long Does Flu Last and Home Remedies for Flu
For most healthy people, flu is a short-term illness which resolves itself as the body’s immune system fights it off. Symptoms usually appear from one to four days after exposure to the virus, and they last five to seven days. For people who have had flu vaccines, they may experience less severe symptoms, or symptoms may last for a shorter period of time.
Once diagnosed with the flu, it is recommended to stay home and rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Fever, which is a common symptom of flu, often causes a lot of water loss in the sick person, so fluid levels in the body need to be replenished constantly by drinking more fluids. Stay home as much as possible, and go out only if necessary, such as to go to the doctor or to buy food. This helps in recovery, as well as helping to protect others from catching the flu bug. If someone experiences a fever as part of the symptoms, it is recommended to stay home until one has been fever-free for 24 hours without needing to take fever-reducing medication like panadol. Some other tips to help in battling the flu virus are:
- Not participating in strenuous physical activities like running and jogging, as this will not aid in recovery.
- Taking pain relievers to lower any fever and relieve aches. Some common pain relievers are acetaminophen (panadol). ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve).
- Eating nourishing food like broths.
- If it is difficult to eat, taking soups is a good idea. They help to increase fluid intake as well. Sports drinks that contain electrolytes are also an option, although they are often sugary.
Once someone with the flu can resume normal activity without getting tired, it is safe to return to work or school. Recovery rates vary from individual to individual.
There are antiviral medications available to treat the flu. These medications help in reducing the ability of the flu viruses to multiply. Different antiviral medications will work for different types of flu. For medicine to be effective, flu antiviral drugs should be taken within the first two days after the person contracts flu. However, starting them later can still be helpful especially if the sick person is at high risk of serious flu complications. Antiviral medications can help to reduce the severity of symptoms, and may potentially aid in faster recovery.
Flu can be prevented with some of the following measures:
- Get vaccinated
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if sick, especially if one has a fever
- When coughing, cover the mouth to prevent droplets from coming out and transmitting the virus to others
- Wash hands frequently
- Try not to touch areas like the mouth and nose, as they allow for access of droplets into the body
- Wear a surgical mask if unwell
- Never spit in public places
- Use a serving spoon when sharing food
Leading a healthy lifestyle is one of the best prevention methods as well. Eat a balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and get 30 minutes of physical activity at least five days a week. Get enough sleep, do not smoke, keep stress levels low, and maintain a healthy weight.
A flu vaccine may be suitable for someone who may face a higher risk of developing flu-related complications, or may be regularly exposed to people who are at higher risk of developing flu complications, such as the elderly aged 65 years and above, individuals with low immunity, and children aged five years and below. Some people who may fall under this category are healthcare workers, or those who work in nursing homes or hospices.
This is the best method of prevention for flu, and a yearly vaccination is recommended to defend against newer strains of flu viruses, and the body’s own naturally decreasing immunity to flu viruses over time. It is important to remember that taking flu antiviral medications, when sick with flu, is not a substitute for getting flu vaccinations. Taking medication when sick deals with the acute illness, but does not build up prevention against getting the illness. Vaccines are offered in many different locations. These include:
- General practitioner clinics
- Some schools offer flu vaccinations as well
The vaccine is often administered in the form of an injection.
For individuals with a higher risk of developing flu-related complications and severe pneumococcal disease (a kind of infection caused by a particular strain of bacteria), Medisave can be used to offset the cost of the vaccination, of up to $500 per year per account. See the different ways Medisave can be used for different situations.
Once vaccinated, the flu vaccine will take effect in about two weeks. It is advised to take the jab before the flu season starts, either before December or May in Singapore in accordance with the flu seasons.
There are some side effects with a flu vaccination. These are often not serious and are mild, beginning soon after the shot and lasting about one to two days. They can include:
- Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Mild fever
- Sore throat
- Vomiting, but this is more likely to occur in children
Very rarely, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. A doctor’s consultation is necessary before taking the vaccine, to ensure someone wanting to take the shot is not unsuitable for the vaccination.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). About Flu | CDC. CDC. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/index.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 31). Cold Versus Flu. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm
- Cherney, K. (2020, February 13). Early Flu Symptoms. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/early-flu-symptoms
- Harvard Health. (2020, October 1). How long does the flu last? https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-long-does-the-flu-last
- Ministry of Health. (n.d.). MOH | Influenza. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.moh.gov.sg/diseases-updates/influenza
- WebMD. (2008, February 13). Flu Symptoms. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/adult-flu-symptoms
- WebMD. (2008b, February 14). Types of Flu. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/advanced-reading-types-of-flu-viruses