What you need to know about the 2023 flu season

Yearly flu vaccination provide the best protection against contracting and spreading the flu. Source: Getty Images.

Winter is a season enjoyed by many for its cozy atmosphere and the often much-needed break from the scorching summer temperatures, however, as temperatures drop and people spend more of their time indoors, it also brings with it the unwelcome arrival of the dreaded flu season.

The flu, or influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory illness that can cause serious health complications and even death. Each year, millions of people around the world are impacted by the flu, making it a major public health concern.

Despite its prevalence, there are several measures that you can take and several important factors to be aware of in order to protect yourself and others during this challenging time.

The flu isn’t the same as a cold

Cold and flu are often referred to together, but they are distinct and differ dramatically in severity.

While colds might come with sneezing, sniffles, or sore throat, Brisbane-based GP, Dr Sarah Chu reminds us that, “the flu usually presents with fever, headaches, body aches and pains that can be severe, along with exhaustion and fatigue that can last up to 2 to 3 weeks.”

The flu is a serious respiratory disease that can have a devastating impact on your health and lasting consequences, and it affects us differently as we age.

Dr Chu explains, “getting sick with the flu may mean never recovering to your previous level of function or doing the things you love.”

If you are in your 60s or older, a severe case of the flu is more likely to put you in hospital. It is estimated that between 2016 and 2019, approximately 56 per cent of flu hospitalisations occurred in Australians aged 60 and above.

If you are older and/or have an existing illness, the flu can cause serious complications including:

  • pneumonia (up to 100-fold increased risk in the week following infection)
  • heart attack (up to a 10-fold increased risk in the days following infection)

And if you have existing coronary heart disease, your risk of dying from flu complications increases 10-fold compared to people without coronary heart disease.

Why do I need the flu shot?

Annual flu vaccination remains our best protection against contracting and spreading the flu and preventing flu-related complications, hospitalisation, and even death.

“The flu virus is unpredictable because the circulating virus changes every year,” says Dr Chu.

“The protection provided by the flu vaccine wanes, so it is best to be vaccinated each year before winter.

“And for families, getting the flu shot also protects the newborn grandchildren you cuddle that might be too young to receive their own flu shot.”

Dr Chu explains that vaccines may contain weakened or inactive parts of a particular organism (antigen) that trigger an immune response, creating antibodies to protect you against future infection.

Preparation is key to staying protected this winter.

Dr Chu says there are several different influenza vaccines available, of various types. Therefore it’s important to discuss with your GP the most appropriate way to protect yourself against the flu based on your personal health circumstances.

Vaccine protection is vital as we age

Annual flu vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu and its potentially serious complications.

However, as we age, our immune system weakens and starts to show a reduced immune response to standard-dose flu vaccines. Therefore, effective vaccination is paramount to reducing influenza infections, hospitalisations, and associated complications.

The good news is Australians aged over 60 can now choose from a range of vaccines after consultation with a healthcare professional.

Dr Chu points out that recent progress in vaccine research has given us a broader choice of vaccine options.

While the Australian Government covers the cost of a flu vaccine for over-65s and others deemed to be at greatest risk, annual vaccination is recommended for all Australians. If you are under 65 years, check your private health insurance policy for coverage of flu vaccine costs.

With the flu season just around the corner, Dr Chu recommends that, “now is the best time to speak to your GP about how you can best protect yourself against the flu before winter sets in”.

Talk to your doctor about influenza protection and vaccine options. For more information, visit the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Common cold and flu myth-busters

Dr Chu shares common misconceptions her patients have had about influenza:

MythThe flu is a lot like a cold

Fact: Influenza is highly contagious and potentially life-threatening

MythThe flu can be treated with antibiotics

Fact: Antibiotics only work against bacteria, not viral infections

MythHealthy people don’t need an influenza vaccine

Fact: Everyone over the age of 6 months is recommended to receive an influenza vaccine each year.

MythYou catch a cold or flu from cold weather, getting caught in the rain, not drying your hair, etc.

Fact: Influenza and the common cold are caused by viruses, not by the temperature or feeling cold.

For those over 60, it is especially important to take necessary precautions during flu season. Older adults are more susceptible to the flu and its complications, which could lead to hospitalisation. Getting a flu vaccine is particularly important for over 60s, as it can help boost immune response and provide better protection against the flu.

In addition to the flu vaccine, it’s essential to maintain good hygiene practices such as washing your hands frequently and avoiding close contact with those who are sick. If you do develop flu-like symptoms, seek medical attention promptly to receive proper treatment. By being proactive and taking these simple steps, older adults can reduce their risk of catching the flu and stay happy and healthy all winter long.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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