CATCHING the dreaded winter lurgy is never pleasant, but this year, the bugs are especially nasty.
If you, or someone you know, has developed a mutant cold/flu that seems so much worse than usual, then it might be the so-called ‘Australian flu’ that’s to blame.
After weeks of warnings from health experts, this severe strain of influenza has arrived on these shores.
Australia has already been overwhelmed by the potentially deadly H3N2 strain, with 170,000 cases reported this season — that’s more than two-and-a-half more than last winter.
Health experts say that nearly every part of Ireland, including Munster, has reported the highest category — ‘widespread activity’ — for flu in recent weeks, and the ‘Aussie Flu’ strain can be dangerous among vulnerable people.
Public Health England recently reported that this particularly vicious virus has caused 85 deaths in the UK since the beginning of October.
In the second week of January, Irish health officials revealed a staggering 4,700 people went to their doctors with the flu in the seven-day period, week while 500 were admitted to eight hospitals. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, with officials predicting that the number of actual cases could be up to five times higher.
So should you be worried?
We spoke to experts to find out what you need to know about the ‘Aussie flu’, including the tell-tale signs that you’ve been unlucky enough to catch it, and what you can do about it.
What is Aussie flu and what are the symptoms?
There are always a few strains of flu circulating, and Aussie flu, or H3N2, is just one of them.
It’s is a particularly unpleasant strand of influenza A, the most common category of human flu, so the symptoms are similar to regular winter flu but can be more severe.
“If you contract the virus, you’ll likely to experience a high temperature or fever along with coughing, sneezing and a runny nose,” says Steve Iley, medical director for Bupa UK.
“Likewise, it can also bring on aches and pains, with feelings of weakness or fatigue.”
Should we be worried about an Irish outbreak?
“Australian flu is rapidly spreading quickly across Europe, including in Spain and Ireland. Thankfully, we’re yet to see a major spike in cases, but we should be prepared for it,” warns Steve.
The good news is that there’s no need to panic.
“For the most of us — symptoms of the flu should clear up in about a week,” Steve says. However, he does note that some people may be more vulnerable than others.
“People in high-risk groups, including the elderly, children, those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems and pregnant women, should take extra precautions and seek medical help if required.”
Is there a flu vaccine?
Yes there is. A vaccine against Aussie flu was developed in March, using the virus that’s wreaked havoc in Australia.
However, there’s the chance that the strain currently hitting Ireland will have mutated in transit, potentially rendering the vaccine ineffective.
The flu jab is offered free to adults at risk, over-65s, pregnant women and children at risk aged six months to two years old, and a spray is offered to children up to four.
You can have the jab at your GP and some pharmacies. Serious side effects of the vaccine are rare.
Those who don’t heed the advice and are diagnosed by a GP may be prescribed an anti-viral medication to treat their symptoms.
How else can you avoid catching it?
There are a few simple prevention tactics to minimise your risk of catching and spreading this unpleasant virus: washing your hands regularly with soap and water, using tissues to cover your mouth when you sneeze, putting used tissues in the bin as soon as possible, and regularly cleaning surfaces such as keyboards, phones and door handles.
How can you ease the symptoms if you do catch it?
Although it can be unpleasant and make you feel very poorly (you might have to stay in bed), flu is relatively harmless to most people and has a fairly short lifespan — so you’ll likely need to wait it out with plenty of rest, fluids and time off work.
“In the early stages, the best thing to do is approach it in the same way as you would any virus,” says Dr Faye Christopherson, medical officer at Push Doctor in the UK.
“That means staying hydrated, staying warm, and taking painkillers to manage symptoms such as a headache or sore throat.”
“However, it’s important to remember that this is an aggressive strain of flu,” adds Dr Christopherson. “If your symptoms aren’t getting any better, or if you feel like they’re getting worse, it’s vital that you see a doctor as soon as possible.”
If you do start to feel the telltale twinges of Aussie flu — such as a prickly throat, high temperature and a raging headache — experts recommend that you take time off work to rest up, and to avoid passing the virus on to your colleagues.
“If you do get ill, it’s best to stay at home from work,” advises Steve. “Not only will that help you recover as quickly as possible, but it will also prevent you from spreading the flu to colleagues.
“Most people with the flu are able to return to work within a week, but if you’re worried or your symptoms continue, you should see your doctor.”
Is it worth seeing a doctor for antibiotics in the early stages?
The short answer is: no.
“GPs won’t prescribe antibiotics for flu,” says Steve, “so most people will be best visiting their pharmacist, who can advise on treatment.
“However, you should see a GP if your symptoms last for more than seven days, or if you’re in one of the high-risk groups, such as children or the elderly.”
And while it’s very unlikely for most people, Steve notes: “If you experience sudden chest pains, difficulty breathing or coughing up blood, you should call 999 to seek immediate help.”