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Colds and flu

"Colds can make us feel pretty awful but being struck down with flu can be far more serious, particularly for those more vulnerable in the community. Autumn is the best time to consider having your annual flu vaccine. If you do get sick, stay home, throw away used tissues, wash your hands often and keep sick children home from school if they are sick. This will help to stop the flu spreading through the community this winter. And if you're thinking of getting the annual flu vaccine, autumn is the best time, before flu season arrives."

Dr Christine Bennett
Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia

What happens during the flu season? 

Most cases of influenza occur within a six to eight-week period during winter and spring. Each year, there are over 80,000 GP visits due to flu in Australia.

Infected people can spread cold and flu viruses from a day before symptoms start and up to five days afterwards. On average, adults catch two to three colds each year. School-age children can have 12 or more colds in a year.

For a small minority, the flu can lead to serious complications and be life-threatening.

How do you catch colds and flu? 1

Cold and flu viruses are spread from person to person as droplets in the air. Sneezing or coughing produces more droplets and helps to spread the infection. Touching infected surfaces, such as door handles or when shaking hands, and then passing the virus from the hands to the mouth, nose or eyes is another route of infection.

So is it a cold or is it flu? 1,2

The runny nose, headache, sore throat or "stuffy" feeling you get during a common cold is caused by one of many viruses - often a rhinovirus - and they can infect your nose, throat, sinuses and airways.

Influenza - or flu - is caused by influenza viruses. Flu symptoms are similar to those of a cold but they tend to be more severe, with muscle aches and pains, chills and fever. With flu you could be off work for a few days to a week, and aches and pains could last longer. In vulnerable people, such as the elderly or people with lung disease, it can lead to life-threatening complications.

What are the symptoms of colds and flu? 


Cold viruses grow in the soft, warm surfaces of your inner nose, throat, sinuses and airways, so this is where you usually get the symptoms. Typically, you will get a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and a cough. You might also have a fever, aching muscles and general tiredness. These symptoms usually last for about a week.


The symptoms are similar to colds but the muscle aching is usually more severe and the tiredness may last for a few weeks after the illness has cleared up. You’re likely to get a fever, and you may also lose your appetite, feel or be sick or have diarrhoea.

What are the complications of flu? 2

For most healthy adults, flu is just like a nasty cold. However, young children, the elderly and people with long-term illnesses are more likely to get complications.

Complications of flu include getting an infection in your lungs (pneumonia), ears, nose or throat. Children under six with flu can sometimes have seizures or fits - known as febrile convulsions - because of their high body temperature.4 See more information about fever in children.

You are at greater risk of having complications if you are elderly or live in a care home or if you have: 2

  • asthma
  • chronic lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • kidney diseases and kidney failure
  • reduced immunity, for example if you have HIV/AIDS or have had your spleen removed.

How can I treat colds or flu?1,2 

There is no cure for colds or flu. Antibiotics, which treat infections due to bacteria, don’t work on cold and flu viruses. However, here are some things you can do to help yourself feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Take paracetamol to help relieve the fever and pain, and decongestants to help a blocked nose (ask your pharmacist for more advice)
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Get plenty of rest and don’t go back to work too early
  • Don't smoke or drink alcohol.

When to call the doctor

See your GP or pharmacist if your symptoms get worse or if you are concerned about yourself or someone with flu.

How can I prevent getting a cold or flu? 

There are a few steps you can take to help prevent catching colds and flu:

  • Eat a balanced diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables to help get lots of vitamins and minerals which can boost your immune system5
  • Take regular (preferably daily) exercise,6 and have enough rest for your immune system to work properly7
  • Don't smoke - or if you do, try to stop, as smoking reduces the strength of your immune defences and reduces your levels of infection-fighting vitamin C.8

There are steps you can take when you have a cold or flu, to help prevent spreading illness:

  • Try to stay away from other people to prevent the virus from spreading
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing and wash your hands regularly
  • Throw away tissues as soon as you have used them
  • if you are contagious with flu, stay home from work to prevent spreading it to others and keep children home from school.

Should I get the flu vaccine? 

As flu travels around the world, the viruses mutate (change) into new strains from year to year. This is why many people can become infected each year as few of us have immunity against each new strain of the flu virus.

The World Health Organization recommends the composition of new seasonal flu vaccines each year.10 This yearly vaccine can help protect you from common strains of the seasonal influenza virus.9

For more information see seasonal flu vaccine.

The protection against flu develops about two weeks after vaccination and lasts for a year. The best time to vaccinate is in autumn, before the actual outbreak in winter.

As part of the Australian Government’s Immunise Australia program, the flu vaccine is free for:9

  • everyone aged 65 years or older
  • pregnant women
  • indigenous people aged 15 years or older
  • Kooris and Torres Strait Islanders aged 50 years or older
  • residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • anyone aged over 6 months with a condition such as heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, kidney disease, diabetes, impaired immunity and chronic neuromuscular disease.

If you don’t fall into one of these categories, the flu vaccine is still available by private prescription – so talk to your GP if you’d like to be vaccinated.11 Flu vaccinations may also be offered to employees as part of a workplace health program.

For more information about the flu vaccine, talk to your GP or local pharmacist.

Further information 

The Immunise Australia Program
1800 671 811

Influenza Specialist Group
Information on the flu virus, flu vaccinations, and expert opinion from Australian clinicians and scientists who specialise in the flu virus


  1. Better Health Channel. Colds explained. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.
  2. Better Health Channel. Flu (influenza). Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.
  3. National Institute of Clinical Studies. NICS ‘Fight Flu’ Influenza Vaccination Program – Fact sheet. May 2008. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011. (PDF, 752Kb)
  4. NHS Evidence Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Febrile seizure. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.
  5. Dietitians Association of Australia. Diet key to fighting winter colds and flu. May 2008. Available at: Accessed 23 June 2011.
  6. Nieman DC, Henson DA, Austin MD, Brown VA. Immune response to a 30-minute walk. Med Sci Sports Exerc 37: 57–62.
  7. Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Cuneyt MA et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med 2009; 169: 62–7.
  8. Better Health Channel. Smoking – effects on your body. April 2011. Available at: Accessed 23 June 2011.
  9. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Immunise Australia program. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.
  10. WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza: Melbourne Australia. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.
  11. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. New listings and changes 1 March 2010. March 2010. Available at: Accessed 22 June 2011.


Last published: 30 July 2011

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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