What is Winter Flu?
As the weather gets colder and wetter and the nights draw in, the number of people with coughs, sniffles and sneezes grows. People are absent from the office, friends cancel engagements and you seem to always get stuck in the supermarket checkout or on the train next to a sneezing, sniffling, virus-spreader. If you haven’t already, it’s time to get out your hand sanitiser.
So what exactly is winter flu? How do you catch it? Can you avoid it? And what should you do when you get it?
Winter flu is a viral infection caused by various strains of influenza viruses. It can be caught at any time of the year, but is more common during the northern winter (which is why it’s called winter or seasonal flu), partly because we spend more time indoors in the winter, thus spreading our viruses around more readily.
Health bosses in the UK have advised all GPs and hospitals to brace themselves for an intense flu season following the outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand. But NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has insisted that measures were being taken to ensure the NHS was prepared.
But the community can prepare as well, although the flu can be unpleasant and you may be bedridden for days, some at risk groups can develop potentially serious side effects from the flu virus, including pneumonia These at risk groups are eligible for a free flu vaccine on the NHS. For more information on the Flu Vaccination please visit the NHS Flu Vaccine Page.
What is the Flu Virus?
The flu viruses are RNA viruses (i.e. their genetics are encoded in RNA, as they have no DNA) consisting of three genera, all of which infect humans:
- Influenza virus A: is the most notable flu virus. It infects humans but also other mammals and birds, and has been the cause of all the recent human flu pandemics. It is sub-classified into a number of sub-types based on variations in the proteins on its surface. These proteins are denoted by “H” (hemagglutinin) and “N” (neuraminidase). For example, sub-type H1N1 caused the most recent flu pandemic in 2009. The most recently discovered subtype, H18N11, was isolated from a bat in Peru in 2013.
- Influenza virus B: infects seals.
- Influenza virus C: infects pigs and dogs.
Symptoms of the winter flu
The flu symptoms show one to three days after the body becomes infected, and vary from person to person. People are infectious for up to seven days after becoming infected. The symptoms can include some or all of the following:
- sudden fever with a temperature of 38°C or above;
- aching muscles;
- sore throat;
- severe tiredness and weakness;
- runny or blocked nose.
How do you catch the flu?
The main source of flu is other people! The flu virus is present in the mouth and nose of people who have the flu. When you cough or sneeze you launch viral particles into the air in thousands of tiny droplets of saliva and mucus.
So you can catch the flu from:
- breathing the air near people with the flu when they cough or sneeze;
- sneeze and cough droplets landing directly in your eyes, nose or mouth;
- touching the contaminated hands of people who have the flu, or other people who have touched their hands, then touching your nose or mouth, or food that you eat;
- touching surfaces that droplets from coughing and sneezing land on, then your nose or mouth;
- surfaces that people with contaminated hands have touched, for example: door handles, taps, kettles, handrails, cutlery, keyboards, phones, food, keypads on card payment terminals, supermarket trolleys and baskets, etc.
When is the Flu NOT the flu?
Sometimes you could be ‘under the weather’, ‘feeling poorly’ or be feeling a bit ‘sickly’. And not to dismiss your illness, but symptoms of the flu and a cold are different. Proper hand hygiene, sanitisers, and avoiding high risk colleagues of groups is still vitally important in a workplace to reduce the risk of infection and re-infection.
1. The common cold
The common cold is caused by Rhinoviruses, which infect the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. There are over 90 recognised types of Rhinovirus. The infection is normally milder than flu, with the symptoms of a blocked nose, sneezing and cough. When more severe, high temperature, headache and aching muscles are among the symptoms.
There is no cure and no vaccine for colds — it will cure itself in a few days for most people. See more information from the UK NHS.
2. Stomach flu
Stomach flu, also called gastroenteritis, is a catch-all term for infections that affect the stomach and intestines, causing inflammation and other symptoms. They are sometimes mistaken for influenza and just like the common cold, some stomach flu infections also peak during the winter season.
These infections can be caused by viruses, but also by bacteria or parasites caught from contaminated food, water or contaminated surfaces — including other people’s hands!
Some causes of ‘stomach flu’ include:
- Bacteria: E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella;
- Viruses: Norovirus, Adenovirus, Rotavirus, Herpes simplex, viral hepatitis;
- Parasites: Giardia, Cryptosporidium;
Symptoms can include:
- abdominal cramps;
- stomach pain;
The range of possible causes mean it is advisable to consult your doctor to get the most appropriate treatment, especially if symptoms are severe.
Many viruses can cause flu-like symptoms and can occur during flu seasons, including the common cold and some that cause respiratory infections. None of them are prevented by a flu vaccination because is it so tuned to the three or four strains of influenza that are predicted to occur each year.
Initial Washrooms provide a range of preventative measures that can protect your workplace from becoming contagious. Hand hygiene, Sanitiser dispensers, including our ‘No-Touch’ range of hand sanitisers, and the UltraProtect range of surface hygiene products can help to reduce the cost of employee absenteeism from the flu or colds this winter. If you have questions about our range of Hygiene products, please get in touch with one of our team.
Flu from animals
Flu caught from animals, called zoonotic flu, periodically makes the headlines because of the threat of a virulent new strain spreading through human populations and becoming a pandemic flu. The fear of health authorities is that there could be another highly infectious strain such as the one that caused the 1918–1920 Spanish flu pandemic — influenza A subtype H1N1. This killed an estimated 20-100 million people at the end of the First World War.
The same strain H1N1 returned in 1977 and then 2009, when it first arose in Mexico in March/April and spread worldwide. It was called swine flu as it was believed to have originated on a pig farm. There were 18,000 laboratory-confirmed deaths but an estimated 280,000 in total according to later research. It is thought to be a mutation of the H1N1 strain, combining four strains from humans, birds and pigs (two strains), and was classified as H1N1/09.
The WHO and governments around the world have put a lot of effort into preparing for pandemic outbreaks. The International Health Regulations (2005) require governments to have the ability to detect and respond to health threats and report to WHO those that may be a “potential public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)”.
Flu viruses can infect many animals such as birds, pigs, horses, dogs, cats and bats. Avian flu (bird flu) and swine flu are the most well-known because of recent outbreaks in farm animals and subsequent infection of humans. The infection is usually far more severe in the host animal; avian flu causes up to 100% mortality in chicken flocks.
People most at risk are those working with animals or handling them, such as sellers handling chickens in markets. However, most strains present in birds and other animals don’t infect humans, and when they do rarely spread far by human-to-human infection.
So a zoonotic flu can become a pandemic flu if it is virulent in humans. Then after infections peak and populations build up more resistance, it can become a seasonal flu when infections follow typical flu infection patterns. In regions that have a distinct winter it is called a winter flu!