Two years of pandemic-induced lockdowns has resulted in unusually fewer cases of flu – but as we head into winter, the accompanying flu season is shaping up to be a rough one according to experts.

To help Aussies prepare for the upcoming sniffle season, Associate Professor Michelle Tate, an influenza expert from Monash University, has answered some common questions about the sneeze-inducing virus.

Is it the flu or just a bad cold?

Though both are caused by viruses, the flu and common cold are caused by two different types – the influenza and rhinovirus respectively – and cause slightly different symptoms.

If you have a runny nose, sore throat and mild to moderate discomfort, it’s likely that you have the common cold.

If you’re feeling fatigued, weak, or have a sudden fever, headache or chills, you’re more likely to have the flu. Unlike catching a cold, coming down with the flu can be quite debilitating and see you stay in bed for several days.

Is the flu dangerous?

If you think you have the flu, Associate Professor Tate says you should reach out to your GP as soon as possible.

“Many people think that there is nothing medically available to treat the flu. However, doctors can prescribe antiviral drugs that can make the infection milder and shorten the time you are sick – if taken within the first two days following the onset of symptoms,” she explains.

On average, around 800 people die from the flu in Victoria each year, with 2022 already seeming to be highly affecting people aged 15-24.

“Severe influenza virus infections are associated with an overwhelming reaction by the immune system, resulting in what is called a ‘cytokine storm’,” Associate Professor Tate says.

“It is often an overreaction of the immune system rather than the virus itself that causes symptoms such as fever and sometimes fatal disease, including multi-organ failure.”

Should I get vaccinated against the flu?

The short answer: yes.

“Vaccination against the flu is particularly recommended for people with underlying conditions such as asthma, pregnant women, the elderly and health workers,” Associate Professor Tate explains.

“It’s even more worthwhile this year, because herd immunity is low as we haven’t been exposed to flu the last couple of years due to social distancing. Because of this, we are now seeing higher than normal numbers of cases.”

As a result of this reduction in herd immunity – the idea that a large proportion of the community is immune to a disease, preventing a disease from spreadly to as many people and protecting those who aren’t immune – all age groups are vulnerable to the flu this year.

“Additionally, we are seeing cases of flu and COVID-19, which is referred to as ‘flurona’,” Associate Professor Tate adds.

Why do I need the flu jab every year?

With the rapid evolution of COVID-19 and appearance of new variants, calling for us to get booster vaccines and potentially be vaccinated every winter, it’s a little easier to see why the same would apply for the flu, with the vaccine targeting three common types of the virus.

Associate Professor Tate adds that our immune protection declines over time, “so an annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu”.

Image: Getty Images

This article first appeared on OverSixty.