The flu is a viral infection caused by one of the strains of the influenza virus, of which there are many constantly-changing and mutating strains.
It is commonly transmitted in winter, when the body's immune system is weakest.
Those most at risk of the flu include the very young and elderly, as well as pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system.
"The best and most likely way to defend yourself and others against the flu is by getting vaccinated ahead of peak flu season," according to pharmacist Mark Davis, from Terry White Chemmart Hamilton, in NSW.
"Once contracted, you can't treat the flu, but only the flu symptoms.
"The peak season for laboratory-confirmed flu cases is each year from June to September.
"Therefore, to ensure the vaccine is active and protecting you throughout this period, the best time to get vaccinated is usually between March and May each year."
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Many pharmacists have stocks of the quadrivalent flu vaccine available, meaning it protects against the four most-common strains of flu virus.
Pharmacists are trained to administer these vaccines and observe patients for 15 minutes to ensure there are no severe side-effects.
The vaccine is available for free to certain groups of people as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP):
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged between 6 months and 5 years, and 15 years and older
- people aged 6 months or over who have medical conditions that mean they have a higher risk of getting serious disease
- pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy
- people aged 65 years or over
Your local pharmacy may also have a range of winter defence products that may boost your immune system and decrease the likelihood of you catching the flu or, if you do, may help soothe your symptoms.
There are also simple day-to-day practices that can decrease your odds of catching flu, like washing your hands thoroughly, eating healthily, avoiding unhygienic or potentially infected surfaces and avoiding close contact with anyone who may be displaying flu-like symptoms.
The best treatment for mild cases of the flu are time and rest. However, while you're recovering, you can also ensure you:
- drink fluids, particularly water, or specially-formulated hydrating solutions
- take paracetamol to reduce pain and fever
- use decongestant medicines.
Flu symptoms are very similar to those of the common cold, which is why people will often misdiagnose themselves as having 'the flu' rather than a cold. However, flu symptoms are usually much more severe than a cold, and include:
- runny nose
- cough or sore throat
- inconsistent body temperature
- head and body aches
Particularly severe cases of flu can result in hospitalisation, or can lead to other health complications such as:
- heart/organ damage
- brain inflammation and damage
- death (in rare cases)
In addition, there are several health conditions and lifestyle factors that can put you at greater risk of contracting the influenza virus and of having it escalate to more dramatic health complications. These include:
- Diabetes (type 1 and 2)
- Impaired immunity such as HIV infection
- Tobacco Smoking
If symptoms persist or are severe, consult your GP or speak to a local pharmacist.