SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Influenza and COVID-19 vaccines are now available. Book with your GP or pharmacist.
- Influenza (flu) is a viral disease that causes widespread illness every year.
- Immunisation and practising prevention measures for people who are at risk of complications from the flu are the best ways we can reduce the number of flu infections and deaths.
- Flu immunisation is recommended for everyone from 6 months of age who want to protect themselves from the flu and its complications.
- People who work or live with people who are at risk of serious complications should also be immunised to avoid spreading the flu.
- The flu vaccine cannot give you a dose of influenza because it does not contain any live virus.
- You can receive your flu vaccine and your COVID-19 vaccine on the same day, one after the other.
On this page
- What is influenza (flu)?
- Symptoms of the flu
- Diagnosing the flu
- Difference between the flu and COVID-19
- What to expect with the flu
- What about flu complications?
- How can I avoid getting the flu?
- I think I have the flu – should I see a doctor?
- When to seek medical attention
- How can I avoid giving the flu to other people?
- Looking after yourself when you have the flu
- What medications should I take for the flu?
- Tips for buying over-the-counter medications
- Useful tips to aid recovery from the flu
- Where to get help
What is influenza (flu)?
Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract that can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications (including pneumonia). It affects people of all ages. The flu is usually spread by breathing in droplets from coughs and sneezes that contain the virus.
The flu is a seasonal infection that usually occurs from April to September. Flu seasons vary in severity and duration from year to year. In a year of high influenza activity, it is estimated that the flu can contribute to more than 3,300 deaths in Australia.
Even healthy people can sometimes die from the flu. Some Victorians are at increased risk of serious disease and complications of flu, like young children, the elderly, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with a weakened immune system or a chronic medical condition.
During 2023, amidst the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, continued seasonal flu activity is anticipated as borders remain open and interstate and international travel increases.
Vaccination is key to protecting yourself and those around you from the flu.
Symptoms of the flu
The most common symptoms of the flu are:
- sudden appearance of a high fever (38°C or more)
- a dry cough
- body aches (especially in the head, lower back and legs)
- feeling extremely weak and tired (and not wanting to get out of bed).
Other symptoms can be:
- aching behind the eyes
- loss of appetite
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose.
Having the flu is even more likely if you have been in contact with someone who already has it.
Diagnosing the flu
Flu and other kinds of viruses can only be confirmed by a doctor after a nose or throat swab has returned positive results.
Difference between the flu and COVID-19
The symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can be similar.
If you are unwell with flu-like symptoms, contact the COVID-19 hotline on 1800 675 398 (24 hours, 7 days a week) or your GP to check if you require COVID-19 testing.
The symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for are:
- loss or change in sense of smell or taste
- chills or sweats
- sore throat
- shortness of breath
- runny nose.
Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
What to expect with the flu
Symptoms of the flu can hit very quickly and may last several weeks. A bout of the flu typically follows this pattern:
- Days 1–3: Sudden appearance of fever, headache, muscle pain and weakness, dry cough, sore throat and sometimes a stuffy nose.
- Day 4: Fever and muscle aches decrease. Hoarse, dry or sore throat, cough and possible mild chest discomfort become more noticeable. You may feel tired or flat.
- Day 8: Symptoms decrease. Cough and tiredness may last one to two weeks or more.
What about flu complications?
In some cases of the flu, severe illness and complications (such as pneumonia and bronchitis) can develop. This can result in hospitalisation and even death.
The flu can also make some existing medical conditions worse.
In Victoria, flu vaccination is free for people with a higher risk of severe complications associated with the flu:
- all children aged 6 months to less than 5 years
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 6 months and over
- pregnant women – at any stage of pregnancy
- people 65 years and over
- people aged 6 months and older with medical conditions putting them at higher risk of severe flu and its complications:
- cardiac disease
- chronic respiratory conditions
- chronic neurological conditions
- immunocompromising conditions
- diabetes and other metabolic disorders
- renal disease
- haematological disorders
- children aged 6 months to 10 years on long term aspirin therapy.
Speak to your immunisation provider to see if you meet the eligibility for free flu vaccine.
How can I avoid getting the flu?
Getting a flu vaccine every year is recommended for everyone aged 6 months or older. People in the above groups are eligible for free flu vaccination each year under the National Immunisation Program.
While not 100% effective, the flu vaccine provides a high level of protection and can reduce symptoms in those still getting sick.
COVID-19 vaccines can be co-administered (that is, given on the same day, one after the other) with a flu vaccine. Speak to your immunisation provider for advice about COVID-19 and flu vaccines for children aged 6 months to less than 5 years.
Wearing a face mask and practicing good hand hygiene can help to reduce your chances of catching the flu or passing it on to others.
I think I have the flu – should I see a doctor?
Anyone at a higher risk of serious illness with flu-like symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible.
Most people who are generally healthy won’t need to see their doctor for the flu. As symptoms of the flu are similar to COVID-19, talk to your doctor about testing for COVID-19 infection.
If you have the flu, try to rest, maintain a good fluid intake, and manage your symptoms. This will help you recover and prevent dehydration. Your immune system will fight the infection and symptoms will usually clear up on their own.
If you do need to see a GP for your symptoms, make sure you call ahead first so they can make sure there’s no one in an at-risk group around when you have your appointment.
When to seek medical attention
See your doctor if you have any concerns or are in a high-risk group for severe infection. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- sudden dizziness
- severe vomiting
- fever with a rash.
How can I avoid giving the flu to other people?
It is important we all play our part in helping fight the flu and to protect our health system.
Aside from getting your flu shot, follow these 3 simple steps to stop the spread of the flu:
Step 1 - Cough or sneeze into your elbow
If you feel a cough or sneeze is coming on, make sure to cough or sneeze into your elbow. It’s a part of your body less likely to touch other surfaces and will help stop the spread of nasty germs.
Step 2 - Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly
- Our hands are one of the top spreaders of viruses. The flu virus is carried in almost invisible droplets from saliva, sneezes, coughs, and runny noses.
- Flu viruses can live on surfaces such as lift buttons or handrails for up to 48 hours and are spread when people touch an infected surface.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds – especially if you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing or using the toilet. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol.
Step 3 - Rest and recover at home
- If you are sick, rest at home and drink plenty of fluids. Avoid going out, even to the supermarket, where you risk spreading the virus to others. Wear a mask if you need to go out.
- If you start to experience more serious symptoms, seek medical attention.
Looking after yourself when you have the flu
The best things you can do to look after yourself when you have the flu are:
- Rest – you will probably feel very weak and tired until your temperature returns to normal (about 3 days). Rest provides comfort and allows your body to use its energy to fight the infection.
- Stay at home – stay away from work, school and any places where you may have contact with others, especially while you are contagious. The period during which adults are contagious is usually around 3–5 days from when the first symptoms appear, and up to 7 days in younger children.
- Drink plenty of fluids – extra fluids are needed to replace those lost because of the fever (through sweating). If your urine is dark, you need to drink more. Try to drink a glass of fluids, such as water, every hour while you are awake.
What medications should I take for the flu?
The flu is a viral infection so antibiotics won’t help and should not be taken.
Antiviral medications, if started in the first 2 days after symptoms start, can shorten the length of your illness. These need to be prescribed by your doctor.
Decongestants and simple pain relievers can help you feel better while your body's immune system fights off the infection.
Tips for buying over-the-counter medications
Follow these tips for buying over-the-counter medication for the flu:
- Buy a remedy that treats only one symptom – this way you are not taking any substances you do not need, or that may trigger an adverse reaction.
- Read the medication label and check:
- whether the active ingredient treats your symptoms
- possible side effects
- possible interactions with any medications, (including prescription and over-the-counter, medicines (such as vitamins and mineral supplements and herbal medicines)
- whether the medication is safe for you to take if you have any health conditions
- If you are unsure if a medication is suitable for you to take, or if you have any other questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. They can suggest a medication that is appropriate and safe for you to take.
Useful tips to aid recovery from the flu
Other useful flu recovery tips include:
- Take simple pain-relieving medication (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen), as directed on the packet, to ease muscle pain and bring down your fever (unless your doctor says otherwise).
- Never give any medications that contain aspirin to children (under 12 years) unless advised by a doctor. The combination of the flu and aspirin in this age group has been known to cause Reye’s syndrome – a very serious condition affecting the nervous system and liver.
- Antibiotics are not effective against the flu because influenza is a virus, and antibiotics fight bacteria. However, your doctor may prescribe them if you develop a bacterial infection on top of the flu.
- Gargle with a glass of warm water to ease a sore throat. Sucking on sugar-free lollies or lozenges also helps.
- A hot water bottle or heating pad may help relieve muscle pain. A warm bath may also be soothing.
- Use saline nose drops or spray to help soothe or clear a stuffy nose. These decongestants help shrink swollen blood vessels in the nose. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which medication will be the best for you.
- Do not smoke – this will irritate your damaged airways.
- Try warm, moist air inhalation. Boil a kettle, wait a minute for the water to slightly cool, and carefully empty the hot water into a bowl. Place the bowl on a steady surface, such as a table. Put a towel over your head and inhale the warm air in the bowl for up to 20 minutes. There is no need to add anything to the water. Be careful not to touch the water and keep it out of reach of children.
- Ask for help if you live alone or care for others. You may need support until you feel better.
- Remember, if you buy medicine at the pharmacy to treat your symptoms (over-the-counter medications), check with the pharmacist to see which one is right for you. Let them know if you have a chronic illness or are taking any other medication.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Your GP (doctor)
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Your pharmacist
- National Immunisation Program
- The Australian Immunisation Handbook, Department of Health, Australian Government
- Immunisation schedule and vaccine eligibility criteria, Department of Health, Victorian Government
- National Immunisation Program Schedule, Department of Health, Australian Government
- Vaccine side effects, Department of Health, Victorian Government
- Pre-immunisation checklist – what to tell your doctor or nurse before immunisation, Department of Health, Victorian Government
- Vaccinations in the workplace, Department of Health, Victorian Government
- Flu (influenza), Department of Health, Australian Government
- 2023 influenza vaccines – Clinical advice for vaccination providers, Department of Health, Australian Government.
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