Aussie flu: how do we know if we have it or just a bad cold?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“For many people “coming down with the ‘flu” is a euphemism for a diverse set of ailments ranging from a heavy cold to the consequence of over-indulging the night before. For those unfortunate enough to have experienced a real influenza infection, however, the fever, aching joints and overwhelming exhaustion are usually enough to ensure that “I have the ‘flu” is a phrase thereafter reserved only for the real thing.”  

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Like many pathogens, the influenza virus deserves our (grudging) admiration.  A collection of only 11 genes (for comparison, you have around 20 000) wrapped up in a protein shell, the virus is tiny - almost 1000 individual ‘flu viruses would fit end-to-end across a human hair.  Despite its diminutive size, however, the virus can survive for up to 48 hours on surfaces, and a single aerosol droplet from an infected person can be sufficient to trigger a new infection. Once it gets inside the body, the virus invades epithelial cells lining the airway and starts to replicate. This process damages tissues, and triggers a very strong inflammatory response including most of the unwelcome symptoms of flu.

The influenza virus comes in three “flavours”: A, B, and C. Type A is typically the most serious in humans, and is the type largely responsible for winter flu outbreaks, such as the one we are experiencing now. Although there are many different influenza A viruses, only three types appear to infect humans: H1N1, H1N2 and H3N2.

Influenza A circulates naturally in bird populations in Asia but spreads effectively in cold conditions. The reasons for this are not fully understood, but probably include a complex mix of people spending more time indoors in crowded settings and environmental conditions that are more conducive to long-term survival of the virus. This can lead to it spreading to other regions of the globe during the southern and northern hemisphere winters. In fact, both “Aussie” and “French” flu are in reality, ’Asian’ flu.

The UK typically experiences a flu outbreak every winter, but is there anything special about this year’s infection? As far as we can tell at this stage, the virus itself is fairly unremarkable. Both Aussie and French ‘flu are Influenza-A, type H3N2, which is the same group that has been responsible for most winter flu cases in the UK in recent years.  What is slightly unusual this year is the scale of the outbreak, and the number of patients who develop severe symptoms that require hospitalisation. 

The current outbreak in France started in December, a month earlier than is typical for flu, and although the number of people affected is not higher than in previous years, the number requiring hospitalisation is about four times higher than would be expected.  Whilst the French outbreak is predicted to be reaching its peak and should shortly start to decline, the UK outbreak started later and consequently the expectation is that cases will continue to rise for at least the next week or two.

Despite the fact that Aussie/ French flu is not likely to trigger a global apocalypse, most of us would still prefer not to experience it first-hand. Luckily, the current flu vaccine available, offers good (although not perfect) levels of protection, so getting the vaccine is a good idea, and is strongly recommended for those who are at particular risk such as the over-65s or pregnant women.  

The key to avoiding flu is really stringent hygiene. Normal soap and water is a great way to kill a virus, so wash your hands regularly, try to minimise touching mouth and face and, if you develop coughs and sneezes, make sure you bin tissues immediately after use.

Lastly, one thing that won’t help with the flu is antibiotics. Influenza is a virus, not a bacterium, so antibiotics are completely ineffective and (mis)using them in this way risks accelerating the evolution of antibiotic resistance.  However, it is important to note that some people who have had flu can develop a secondary and potentially dangerous bacterial pneumonia because of the lung damage the ‘flu virus causes. So if you had the flu, began to feel better but then start to feel worse again, it is recommended that you should visit your GP in case you  need antibiotics to deal with a secondary bacterial infection.

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  • Susanna Guiney
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    1. At 8:49AM on 19 March 2018, wrote

    I have been in bed for 7 weeks now with the flu had fluid in my ear drum went to doctors they said i had the flu. Started off very unwell cold sweats very tried no appetite had a migraine and vomiting very light heading for the first 3 weeks couldn't lift my head off pillow. 7 week now still feeling very tried still no appetite no energy still in bed most off the time. How long does this last for and is it the assuie flu or what i have never had the flu before and i still feel awful still have no appetite

  • General
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    2. At 4:05PM on 15 June 2018, General wrote

    Are you better now?

  • Helen B
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    3. At 4:28PM on 17 January 2019, Helen B wrote

    I had the flu jab November last year, work paid for us all to have it and apparently this was to protect against 3 viruses. I have been ill for a week now with flu! What went wrong? Had the usual symptoms hot cold temperature no appetite or energy, now have throat that feels like I have swallows barbed wire. Contacted docs today to get something fore my throat and reluctantly went to the surgery. Apparently it is all viral so nothing I can take.

    Is there another outbreak not predicted or was my vacation a dud? 🙁

  • Elaine Stevens
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    4. At 3:08PM on 13 May 2019, Elaine Stevens wrote

    I have a cold Virus right now with a cough and the month is May 13th 2019 so is this Normal for this time of year. Thank you

  • Tessa Buckley
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    5. At 2:09PM on 26 May 2019, Tessa Buckley wrote

    Snap... Elaine Stevens ... the whole of May has disappeared under the duvet ... today bank hol Sunday is the first day I’ve had some energy! I found head over bowl hot water with Olbas Oil helped and also a nose inhaler...

    Also know a few peeps that have had it as bad this month ....get well soon!

  • Fiona Bristeir
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    6. At 3:06PM on 30 May 2019, Fiona Bristeir wrote

    Hi ladies me to. Cold virus since 16th May started with sore throat now completely worn out and the most hideous cough that makes you almost gasping for breath. Never been this bad before and can't see any end to it yet. Good thing I work in a school and have had the luxury of staying in bed this half term. Only hope it starts to get better as can't function like this. Good luck to all out there who may be experiencing the same.

  • D AVery
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    7. At 5:58AM on 31 May 2019, D AVery wrote

    Have an awful cold, caught it off hubby he went to the FA cup final and came back with this lovely virus. I have had the flu jab so thought I would be okay but this is horrible. Coughing sweating, runny nose and sneezing like you would not believe. Given up on boxes of tissues using loo roll! gone through several bottles of hand gel as well as continually washing my hands. Supposed to be attending a joint first birthday party for friends children this weekend - no chance not passing this on to anyone!

  • Christina
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    8. At 3:30PM on 01 June 2019, Christina wrote

    Snap! Cold virus from hell hit me on 10 May and three weeks later still not better. Completely exhausted with zero energy! Fever, sweats, sore throat and coughing were my first symptoms, followed by sinusitis for last 10 days! Never ending - not known a cold virus like it and in May as well! Fed up!

  • Nicholas Malherbe
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    9. At 11:53PM on 03 June 2019, Nicholas Malherbe wrote

    7 day flu for me late may.

    Started with throat, then headache, paintful scalp, ears, jaw miss aligning due to swelling.

    Back of throat felt like a lake of lava and I’m sweating so much having an out of body experience, hallucinations and tripping balls. I thought I was going to die or was dead.

    After 6 days of no food just water and painkillers the doctor visit was useless. They give you that shoulder shrug. You dying and they look at you as if you really need to stop moaning.

    Finally after looking at my son one more time and not being able to be a fatherI went to a private doctor, not being able to speak she asked me about my sinuses which then was diagnosed and said I have a sinus infection and this causes post nasal, sore throat and the rest is history.

    Oh wow, let’s treat the cause, finally a solution.

    I now have antibiotics and feel a million times better. Day8.

    So day seven = I want to end myself as I’m in so much pain.

    Day 8 antibiotics = feel better.

    I think this is not a flu virus in the general sense, I’ve had flu from several times but this one was different. At 35 ti was dead , Iwas a body walking around the house.

    2 fingers up to GP’s but not the GP who actually wanted to help and made a difference.

  • Nicholas Malherbe
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    10. At 7:39AM on 04 June 2019, Nicholas Malherbe wrote

    Just to follow up. It’s day 3 of antibiotic to treat sinus infection and throat is nearly healed. I feel a lot better. The antibiotic is CLARITHROMYCIN

    You don’t need to suffer.

    Total days 9 days.

    Think if I had antibiotic at day 3 I would have been better sooner

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