Seasonal flu

Learn about different flu viruses, including seasonal flu and swine flu, who is more likely to be affected by seasonal flu, and why it is very important that people should still have their free seasonal flu vaccination

Children to be offered annual flu vaccine

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that all children from the ages of two to 17 should have the annual flu vaccination.

The vaccine, which will be given as a nasal spray rather than an injection, is unlikely to be offered to children before 2014.

For more information about the reasons behind this recommendation and the safety of the vaccine read our flu vaccine for children Q&A.

Further reading: JCVI. Position statement on the annual influenza vaccination programme (PDF, 151kb) (published July 25 2012).

Flu is a highly infectious and very common viral illness that is spread by coughs and sneezes.

It's not the same as the common cold. Flu is caused by a different group of viruses and symptoms tend to be more severe and last for longer.

You can catch flu - short for influenza - all year round, but it is especially common in winter, which is why it is also known as 'seasonal flu'.

Flu causes a sudden high temperature, headache and general aches and pains, tiredness and sore throat.

You can also lose your appetite, feel nauseous and have a cough.

Flu symptoms can make you feel so exhausted and unwell that you have to stay in bed and rest until you feel better.

Read more about the symptoms of flu.

When to see a doctor

If you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is usually no need to see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms. 

The best remedy is to rest at home, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen,  to lower a high temperature and relieve aches.

You should see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms and you:

  • are 65 or over
  • are pregnant
  • have a long-term medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney or neurological disease
  • have a weakened immune system

This is because flu can be more serious for you, and your doctor may want to prescribe antiviral medication.

Antiviral medicine can lessen the symptoms of flu and shorten its duration, but treatment needs to start soon after flu symptoms have begun in order to be effective.

Antibiotics are of no use in the treatment of flu because it is caused by a virus and not bacteria.

Read more about how to treat flu and who should see a doctor.

How long does flu last?

If you have flu, you generally start to feel ill within a few days of being infected.

Symptoms peak after two to three days and you should begin to feel much better after a week or so, although you may feel tired for much longer.

You are usually infectious – that is able to pass on flu to others – a day before your symptoms start, and for a further five or six days. Children and people with weaker immune systems, such as cancer patients, may remain infectious for longer.

Elderly people and anyone with certain long-term medical conditions are more likely to have a bad case of flu, and are also more likely to develop a serious complication such as a chest infection.

In the UK, about 600 people a year die from a complication of seasonal flu. This rises to around 13,000 during an epidemic.

Read more about the complications of flu.

Preventing the spread of flu

The flu virus is spread in the small droplets of fluid coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. These droplets can travel a metre or so and infect anyone within range who breathes them in.

Flu can also spread if someone with the virus transfers it on their fingers. For example, if you have flu and you touch your nose or eyes and then touch someone else, you may pass the virus on to them. Similarly if you have flu and touch common hard surfaces such as door handles with unwashed hands then other people who touch the surface after you can pick up the infection.

Read more about the causes of flu.

You can stop yourself catching flu in the first place or spreading it to others by being careful with your hygiene. 

Always wash your hands regularly with soap and water and:

  • regularly clean surfaces such as your keyboard, telephone and door handles to get rid of germs
  • use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
  • put used tissues in a bin as soon as possible

Learn more about stopping the spread of flu by watching this video about the government's Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign.

You can also help stop the spread of flu if you avoid all unnecessary contact with other people while you're infectious. You should stay off work until you are no longer infectious and you are feeling better.

Read more about how to stop the spread of flu.

The flu jab

A flu vaccine is available free on the NHS if you:

  • are pregnant
  • 65 or older
  • have a serious medical condition
  • are a healthcare worker or carer
  • live in a residential or nursing home

Despite popular belief, the flu vaccine cannot give you flu as it doesn't contain the active virus needed to do this.

The flu vaccine is available from October each year. If you think you need it, talk to your GP or practice nurse.

For more information on who should have the flu jab and how to get it read our section on the seasonal flu jab.

Last reviewed: 11/08/2011

Next review due: 11/08/2013


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amilie said on 27 January 2013

im supposed to have a cataract operation feb 25.thqats not a big deal.but my vision is blurrier and im afraid the surgeon wont do this. i have to stay 1 nite in the hospital.does this flu have an effect on this?

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amilie said on 27 January 2013

i truly appreciate everyones answers to ky dilemma so soon. were all in this together andmy heart breaks when i see so many people suffering like i am. ive never experienced anything like it. my heart goes out to all of you. its reaching a point --i dont care what the name of the flu is,,but this is a flu that will go down in history--the great influenza epidemic of 2013. im not that old, but i remember reading about the great 1 of 1918. this is another winner. somebody should know something. every dr-I don't know ...you had bad flu.i dont need drs to tell me what i know. obviously if it werernt so bad i wouldnt need them. im supposed to have a cataract operation feb 25. who knows if the surgeon will do it if my strength doesnt come back?a cataract is not a big deal, but even the dr was sick and postponed it to feb 25. im so disgusted. in this day and age---doesnt anyone know anything?and they say 65 is my golden years. i was a school teacher and had a wonderful life. those were the golden years.what this is--is quite frightening.

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amilie said on 27 January 2013

im 65 and i have the worst flu in history. ive never been sick like this.my fever was 40 c. thats gone. my sore throat is gone. antibiotics took care of that. but that was the easy part---3 drs came here to my house. i thought id die.every bone, muscle , tendon was on fire. its 3 weeks already. finally the diarrea is gone. im not hungry, but i force myself to eat sm amts all day. i have no strength . i have poor balance, which the meds do nothing for.im too thin to start with--always been thin, but now im afraid to weigh myself. however at least the little food i eat is staying. my husband tells me i look beautiful. thats true love or im hard of hearing.my mom died of alzeimers a few months ago and i have 2 bleeding ulcers. will this ever end? when do i get my strength back? this isnt me--im active and like to do things. i cant.inlay in bed. i pray.i cant take much more of this.is this swine flu? thats sure scary if it is. the drs say im in no danger. it takes time.my flu was so bad i have to have patience, but im crying from all this. its like --i had a life and all of a sudden this.when does this weakness end? when does the dizziness end? 3 weeks already.im 65 . i have no family. my parents are gone. i thank god for my husband and kids. im just at a loss as what to do. i cant get the strength back. how much longer?

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gadget_uk said on 15 December 2012

My wife has had the flu jab twice at work and both times she has caught full blown flu those winters. She was sick of catching flu and losing time off work just about every winter so got the offer of a flu jab at work and it made no difference to her whatsoever.

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JohnShirley said on 19 October 2012

I have been trying since 24.9.12 to get some information on the efficacy and safety of this vaccine, especially clinical evidence and reassurance about links with senile dementia because of the adjuvants: so far I have drawn a complete blank, from the Head of NHS Suffolk, my GP(thinks there is "possible evidence, but no more news after weeks), Boots the Chemists. My requests for help from over a dozen media outlets, radio, local and national press, Age UK, Watchdog, Trading Standards my MP and other people and agencies, haven't even received an acknowledgement. There seems to be complete censorship. A Lancet article (Oct 2011) suggests an effectiveness of 1.5% for adults, 12 % for children.

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SJDF said on 10 May 2012

Our whole family, except for my Mother in law who got the vaccine on the NHS, paid to have the combined seasonal and swine flu jab, yet we all have the flu. I have only ever been this ill, once in my life. A bit better than yesterday, but still woozy and feeling drunk. Hacking and sneezing like never in my life. It started on Monday night with a cracking headache. My son had it since friday last week and is still a bit ill now. It made him puke everywhere - all over me! No puking for me, but terrible aches and shivering with fever. The fever lasted, on and off, for two days. Is there a new strain that they have no vaccine for? I dont usually get the flu jab - only evr had it once, years ago - as I virtually never get flu or a cold. Is this a new strain?

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Mikegall said on 07 August 2011

The description of the flu is quite accurate. I wonder about the efficacy of the flu jab?

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AquaBabe said on 28 February 2011

A friend of mine had the seasonal flu jab last November but has been in bed for nearly a week with a bad dose of flu. Her GP confirmed today that it is the flu.

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