In the weeks before Christmas, my practice is heaving with last-minute ‘urgent’ cases. Many of these are not emergencies at all, but people bogged down by a bad case of flu.
Patients are forced to wait, coughing and sneezing – all the while putting fellow, potentially vulnerable patients at risk of infection. And it’s been worse than ever this year.
Flu season has hit earlier than usual, with flu-related hospital admissions now ten times what they were this time last year. In the past week alone, flu cases have risen by a quarter, according to figures released last Friday.
November’s flu-vaccine shortage may be partly to blame – it’s estimated that 80 per cent of primary school kids have not been vaccinated.
The flu spreads like wildfire among children of this age, who promptly bring home the virus and pass it to their families. But the solution, if you are unlucky enough to contract the miserable virus, is not at your GP surgery. By coming in, you’ll simply infect other sick people, and for them the virus could prove deadly.
So, stay inside, keep warm, and follow my DIY flu-fighting guide instead…
The solution, if you are unlucky enough to contract the flu, is not at your GP surgery – even if you are feeling as sick as a dog. By coming in, you’ll simply infect other unwell people, and for them the virus could prove deadly
Flu patients should stay away from hospital, too
Last week, 15 British hospitals issued a warning to flu sufferers, pleading with them to stay away from emergency departments. We don’t say this for lack of sympathy.
The flu can be dreadful, I know. Unlike a cold, it can have you laid up in bed for two weeks and it often comes with a high temperature.
As well as the typical sneezing and coughing with a sore throat, there are debilitating muscle aches, headaches and even diarrhoea.
It’s important to note: if you just feel coldy, without having a fever and the other signs, it’s unlikely you have flu. Despite this, every week throughout winter A&E departments endlessly see people who, having had a bad cold for a few days, have decided it’s flu and they need help.
It’s true, flu kills. About 600 Britons each year die after contracting the virus – but most have chronic health conditions or are elderly and frail. For the majority of healthy people, including children, it is horrible, but not serious.
Stock up on paracetamol but watch your dosage
Even if you do head for the doctor’s, there is no effective treatment that a GP can prescribe for flu.
Some patients ask for a prescription medication called Tamiflu, which is said to shorten the length of illness.
But research shows it speeds up recovery by a matter of hours at best.
Aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen can tackle some of the worst symptoms, bringing a temperature down and easing aches. Take them as soon as symptoms start
Totally pointless, really. Instead, make use of local community pharmacies – both for remedies and advice.
Aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen can tackle some of the worst symptoms, bringing a temperature down and easing aches. Take them as soon as symptoms start.
More from Dr Ellie Cannon for The Mail on Sunday…
Typically, you feel dreadful for the first four to five days, as your body goes into full defence mode.
Body temperature increases and the immune system releases chemicals to kill the virus, before producing watery mucus to help wash it out. The build-up of mucus in the sinuses can leave you feeling bunged up and sore-headed, too.
Taking a decongestant from the pharmacy for a few days can help to relieve the congestion.
Usually, by about day five, the virus will be on its way out – but it can take a while for the body’s defences to calm down.
Mucus can remain for two weeks. It’s fine to continue taking flu medications at this point. However, be extremely careful.
They often contain paracetamol and if you take these on top of regular paracetamol tablets, it’s easy to take too many. This kills people every year. Always ask your pharmacist what you can and can’t take together.
Similar rules apply if you’re taking other medication. Natural treatments such as steam inhalation, or salt water nose sprays, are very useful for clearing out blocked sinuses.
With flu, as well as the typical sneezing and coughing with a sore throat, there are debilitating muscle aches, headaches and even diarrhoea. (File image)
Keep fluid levels up… dehydration kills
Top priority with flu is to keep hydrated, as dehydration is the biggest risk, and can be fatal. A temperature causes you to sweat, while bouts of diarrhoea can significantly deplete your fluids.
The virus can leave you totally incapacitated, unable even to clamber out of bed for a glass of water.
How can you tell if it’s just a cold?
How can I tell if it’s flu or just a bad cold?
Firstly, flu starts suddenly and, unlike a cold, it involves a fever, extreme tiredness, headache and body pains. Coughs, sneezing and sore throats happen in both.
Can I still have my flu jab now, if I missed it when it was first offered to me?
Yes! After a shortage in November, flu vaccines are back in stock at GP surgeries, and they protect against the dreaded Aussie flu, which has so far killed 400 Down Under. Children aged from two to 11 will get the nasal spray, while everyone over 65, pregnant women, carers, people living in residential or nursing homes and those suffering from chronic health conditions will be offered the free jab.
Should I have the flu jab if I’ve already had flu this season?
It is best to hold off until you’re feeling better. Sitting in the GP waiting room is the last place you want to be with flu, as you’re likely to pick up something else.
When I’m unwell, I keep an extra-large bottle of water next to the bed and fill it up at every opportunity.
Hot drinks, soups, tea – even Coke – will do the trick too. And if you need cooling down, try sucking ice cubes.
If you live alone, make sure a friend or neighbour knows you’re not feeling well – and don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
A telltale sign of severe dehydration is not passing urine as regularly as you normally would, as well as very dark urine.
If you’re well hydrated, urine should be the colour of pale straw.
Eat little and often. For diarrhoea, bananas can help as they have a slight constipating effect.
And don’t try to go to work. If you do, it’ll take longer to recover and you’ll risk spreading the infection to colleagues.
I can almost guarantee this: the world won’t crumble if you take a few days off. You’re not that important!
Organise home-delivery services for both groceries and medication.
Ask your local pharmacy if they deliver.
If you have no choice but to go out for medication, use the NHS website (nhs.uk) to search for open pharmacies in your postcode.
The only reasons you should go to A&E
Those with underlying health problems, such as heart disease and asthma, have more reason to worry. The virus can exacerbate symptoms of these conditions.
In people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly or pregnant women, it can lead to pneumonia. The red flag to watch out for is difficulty breathing, shortness of breath or a feeling of breathing faster than normal.
Another is if, after a few days, symptoms are getting worse and not responding to treatment. If this is the case, call the NHS 24-hour service on 111.
If your symptoms start to dramatically change such as a new rash, chest pain or drowsiness, best to go straight to A&E, as this is a sign of something other than flu. It’s not an ideal place to spend Christmas Day, but better to be safe than sorry.