Flu (influenza)

Influenza (flu) is a common, highly contagious virus that affects the respiratory system, and can cause mild to serious illness and even death in young children, older people, pregnant women, or people of any age who have a chronic medical condition (such as heart disease or diabetes).

Annual influenza vaccination is recommended for anyone over six months of age. As the virus evolves into new strains, influenza vaccines are updated yearly. It is important to get an influenza vaccine each year to continue to be protected.

Getting vaccinated from April gives you the best protection ready for the peak flu period, from around June to September.

It is never too late to vaccinate since influenza can circulate in the community all year round. Vaccination should continue to be offered as long as influenza viruses are circulating and a vaccine is available. It is also important to know that the vaccine isn’t immediately effective and it generally takes 10 to 14 days to be fully protected after vaccination. Anyone planning travel to the Northern Hemisphere late in the year should discuss influenza vaccination with their doctor.

The flu vaccine does not contain any live virus, so you cannot get the flu from the vaccine.

Influenza vaccines are funded by the state and national influenza programs and available free of charge for:

  • all children from 6 months to less than 5 years of age
  • pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy
  • all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 6 months and older
  • individuals 65 years and older
  • individuals older than 5 years of age with medical conditions predisposing them to severe influenza.

If you’re not eligible to receive a free influenza vaccine, they are still available to be purchased from a range of vaccine providers including general practices, community health clinics, Aboriginal Medical Services and pharmacies.

Symptoms of the flu usually appear one to three days after you catch it. They can include:

  • sudden onset of fever
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • headache
  • nose, throat and lung congestion
  • muscle and joint pain
  • tiredness or extreme exhaustion.

Symptoms can change for children and the elderly. Children are more likely to have gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea). In the elderly, fever may be absent and the only signs and symptoms of flu may be confusion, shortness of breath and worsening of a chronic condition.
Generally, the flu is managed by resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids (particularly water) and taking over-the-counter medication to help relieve symptoms. You can reduce the risk of infection by getting vaccinated and practising good hand and respiratory hygiene to protect yourself and others, including:

  • staying home when sick
  • washing hands regularly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand cleaner
  • washing your hands before and after touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • using a tissue, or the inside of your arm, when you cough and sneeze
  • throwing tissues away immediately and washing your hands
  • avoiding sharing items which have come into contact with the mouth or nose
  • staying at least one metre away from people who have flu-like symptoms
  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces regularly.

If you’re concerned about your symptoms or are in a high-risk group and have a cough and or high fever (38 degrees Celsius or more) that is not improving, it’s important to see your doctor. You can also speak to your chemist about over-the-counter treatments.
Prompt commencement of neuraminidase inhibitors is recommended for patients with confirmed or suspected influenza who require hospitalisation, or are at risk of complications. This includes children <5 years, adults ≥65 years, pregnant women, immunosuppressed patients or significant comorbidities, or have severe, complicated or progressive disease.

Resources regarding influenza:

What medical conditions are eligible for a free influenza vaccine?
Influenza can significantly impact people who have existing health conditions. It is vital for people with chronic illness and disease to protect themselves with the influenza vaccine. This includes anyone who is six months of age and over who has:

  • heart disease
  • severe asthma (requiring frequent medical consultations or use of multiple medications)
  • chronic lung conditions
  • diseases of the nervous system which affect your breathing
  • impaired immunity
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • blood disorders
  • children aged six months to 10 years on long-term aspirin therapy.
Receiving an influenza vaccination when pregnant
Influenza is a very serious disease for pregnant women, unborn children and newborn babies. Although many cases are mild, influenza can be life-threatening. The flu vaccine can be safely given to women at any stage during pregnancy. When a mother gets an influenza vaccine during pregnancy, their baby is protected from the moment they are born. Since babies under six months are too young to receive the flu vaccine, their only opportunity for protection is for you to get a vaccine whilst pregnant. If you are unsure about influenza vaccination, ask your health care provider for advice.