With flu season almost upon us once again, it’s time to start thinking about what you can do to prevent yourself and your family from falling ill. Since becoming a father, I have a new set of considerations to take into account this year, so here’s a summary of my advice for young families about protection from the flu.
What is the flu?
Flu (or influenza) is a contagious viral illness, most commonly caught between October and March, which is spread from person to person via exhaled droplets of water or mucus. The symptoms of the flu are often confused with those of a bad cold but they tend to be more severe and come on more rapidly. Typical symptoms of the flu include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle pains
- Abdominal Pain/Diarrhoea
The illness varies in severity but tends to be more serious in young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with preexisting chronic health problems.
Boost your immune system
The first step in protecting your family from the flu is to avoid getting it yourself. Your immune system is one of the most incredible products of evolution and allows you survive in a world which is absolutely riddled with millions of microbes, many of which would otherwise be harmful. There is a war waging under your skin every moment of every day. It’s only when your immune system is overwhelmed that you start to exhibit symptoms of infection. To aid your cells in the fight, there are various things you can do to tip the balance in their favour:
- Sleep – The link between sleep deprivation and poor immune function is well established so make sure you’re getting your eight hours.
- Sunlight – Adequate vitamin D is essential in maintaining a properly functioning immune system. It is speculated that part of the reason viral illnesses increase in winter months is due to people lacking vitamin D. NHS guidelines suggest breastfed babies, children aged 1-4 years old and pregnant or breastfeeding women should supplement with vitamin D. For everyone else, the advice is to consider supplementation in autumn and winter.
- Avoid smoking – Smoking suppresses the immune system, especially in the respiratory system, making smokers more likely to catch the flu and leading to a more severe illness when they do.
- Diet – Malnutrition impairs the immune system and can be present in fussy eaters as well those who are underweight. A wide variety of natural foods is the key to maintaining a robust immune system, ensuring adequate selenium, zinc, copper, iron and vitamins A, B6, C and E.
Whether to have vaccinations or not is a hugely debated topic amongst families. I generally advocate their use but the flu vaccine does come with its own set of issues. The NHS offers the nasal flu vaccines to children aged two to five, the injection to children and adults over the age of five with certain chronic conditions, pregnant women and to adults over the age of 65. However, the injected flu vaccine is available privately to anyone over the age of six months old. The vaccine reduces the incidence of flu infections, the number of hospital admissions and fatalities but the injection, despite not being able to cause the flu, can cause a reaction which has very similar symptoms. Added to this, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine changes from year to year and can only be determined retrospectively. Last year for example, the flu vaccine was 15 percent effective, meaning 85 percent of those who had the vaccine received zero benefit and may well have suffered the flu-like side effects. The nasal vaccine on the other hand, rarely causes side effects other than a slight runny nose, so I will have no hesitation in giving my son this vaccine when he is old enough.
Children under the age of six months cannot receive any form of the flu vaccine. However, one of the many wonderful things about human physiology, is that pregnant mothers share part of their own immune system with their babies via the placenta. This means that taking steps towards boosting your immune system and receiving the flu vaccine in pregnancy can provide your baby with some protection from flu viruses until they’re 6-8 months old, so I’d recommend the flu vaccine for any expectant mothers.
Go via the NHS to get the vaccine for you and/or your child, or to have it done at your own convenience, in the comfort of your own home, go via the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app, GPDQ. The digital service connects its users (patients) directly with a local NHS GP who will visit them within hours at a location of the patient’s choice, be it their home, workplace or a hotel if they are travelling from abroad.
Teach your children good hygiene
Another slightly contentious topic is how clean to keep your family’s environment. Advances in hygiene since the mid 19th century have saved countless human lives, but the quest to create an ever more sterile environment may well have led to the rise in various other conditions such as asthma, hay fever, autoimmune diseases and some cancers.
Flu is very contagious, so it’s advisable to take extra precautions especially if you have young, unvaccinated children. Flu can be caught from inhaling the virus when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. Avoid cramped public spaces like buses and trains if at all possible and avoid visiting someone you know has the flu. The flu virus can also remain on surfaces for up to 24 hours so hand washing, especially before mealtimes is a good idea. With the best will in the world, it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of catching the flu. Therefore, I generally think it makes sense to try and develop a robust immune system in yourself and your family by relaxing hygiene standards a little when the risk of contracting illnesses is low.
Unsurprisingly, the best way to stay healthy in flu season is to adopt lifestyle habits which fare people well in all aspects of health; eat well, get enough sleep, go outside in the sunshine and don’t smoke. Avoid contact with people with the flu if possible and encourage hand washing before mealtimes and after being out in public.
I would also advise anyone eligible to get vaccinated, either via the NHS or visit www.gpdq.co.uk to book a private appointment.
By Dr Tom York, NHS-registered and private GP for GPDQ, the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app