During winter, many of us become more aware of wanting to take care of our immune health. Cold weather can impact our body’s defenses, and with more time spent indoors, germs spread more easily from person to person. This makes winter a hotbed for illnesses like influenza (flu) and pneumonia.
It’s easy to confuse flu for pneumonia – or even for the common cold – and vice versa, but the conditions are different.
While the majority of people get better on their own, for older adults or those with a weakened immune system, conditions like flu or pneumonia can be serious. According to Asthma and Lung UK, more than 25,000 people die from pneumonia in the UK each year – so it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.
With this in mind, we’ll delve deeper into the symptoms and causes of flu and pneumonia, and explore ways to lower your risk and prevent spreading it to others.
What is flu?
Flu is a common viral illness that affects the respiratory system – including the nose, throat, and lungs. It’s caused by the influenza virus, which is highly contagious.
Flu is most common in winter, between October and March, which is why it’s also known as seasonal flu. However, it’s possible to catch flu during the warmer months too.
You can also catch flu many times because the viruses that cause it change regularly, meaning your body won’t have a natural resistance to the new versions.
What are the symptoms of flu?
It’s typical for symptoms of flu to develop suddenly – usually within one to three days after becoming infected.
Some of the most common symptoms include…
- Sore throat
- Dry, chesty cough
- Body aches and pains
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling nauseous or being sick
- Extreme fatigue
Flu symptoms can be similar to that of the common cold, but tend to be more severe. Key differences include flu affecting more than just your nose and throat, and preventing you from carrying on with your normal activities.
The majority of people will also feel better within a week – though, you may have a lingering cough and still feel fatigued for a few more weeks.
How is flu treated?
Antibiotics don’t work for viral infections like flu. They won’t help to relieve symptoms or speed up your recovery, so GPs don’t recommend them.
However, if you have flu, there are things you can do at home to help your body recover more quickly.
This includes keeping warm, allowing yourself plenty of rest and sleep, staying hydrated, and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and help with aches and pains.
Are there any potential complications of flu?
Anyone can catch flu but some people are at a greater risk of developing worse symptoms and further complications.
Flu places stress on the body, which can impact things like blood pressure, heart rate, and heart functions. For people with weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions (for example, heart or lung disease), this can be dangerous.
In fact, according to the British Heart Foundation, there’s evidence that heart attacks happen more often during or immediately after an acute inflammatory illness, such as flu.
In some cases, people may develop further illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia when they catch flu.
For this reason, it’s important that people who are at risk get the annual flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine
The NHS offers a flu vaccine to help protect against the main types of flu viruses. The vaccine is offered for free on the NHS to people who have a higher risk of flu complications.
This includes older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and residents or staff working in a care home for older adults. The vaccine is currently offered to those who are 65 and over, but from 31st March 2024, it’ll be offered to people aged 50 and above.
It’s important to get vaccinated every year because flu viruses are constantly changing. A different vaccine is created each year to provide the best protection against flu. Even if it’s a mild winter, flu is still in season, so it’s important to have your annual jab if you’re eligible.
You can find out more about who’s eligible for the flu vaccine and how to book an appointment on the NHS website.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a leading cause of emergency hospital admissions in the UK every winter. It’s a type of chest infection that causes the tissue in one or both lungs to swell and become inflamed. At the end of the breathing tubes in your lungs are tiny air sacs called alveoli – and, if you have pneumonia, these air sacs become inflamed and fill up with fluid.
While pneumonia is usually caused by a bacterial infection or a complication of a virus such as flu, it can also be caused by a fungal infection – though, this is rare for healthy people in the UK.
The condition is much less contagious than flu, particularly for those who are otherwise healthy.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
Pneumonia symptoms can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours, or may appear more gradually over several days. Unlike flu, which can cause muscular aches and pains and fatigue, pneumonia mainly involves respiratory symptoms.
Some of the most common symptoms of pneumonia include…
- A cough, which may produce yellow, green, or even bloody mucus
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fever, sweating, and chills
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bluish lips and fingernails
- A sharp or stabbing pain in the chest that worsens when you cough or breathe deeply
- Confusion – particularly in older people
Symptoms of pneumonia can vary from being so mild that you barely notice them to so severe that people have to be hospitalised. If symptoms are severe, the condition can be frightening because it directly impacts your ability to breathe.
How the body responds to pneumonia will ultimately depend on a person’s age, their overall health, and the type of bacteria or virus causing the infection.
How is pneumonia treated?
It’s important to see your GP if you feel unwell or are showing typical symptoms of pneumonia.
Antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat pneumonia; alongside rest, staying at home, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with pain or a high temperature.
The NHS advises against taking cough medicine for pneumonia because coughing helps the body work to get rid of the infection.
Those who don’t have any other health problems should recover from pneumonia within two to four weeks.
However, babies and older adults with pneumonia, as well as people with heart or lung conditions, are at risk of becoming seriously ill and may require hospital treatment. For this reason, if you have severe symptoms, such as chest pain, rapid breathing, or confusion, it’s important to seek urgent medical attention.
Who’s at risk of developing pneumonia and what are the potential complications?
In the UK, pneumonia affects around eight in 1,000 adults each year – and it’s much more common in autumn and winter.
Pneumonia can affect people of any age. However, certain groups are more at risk. Factors that can increase the risk of pneumonia include…
- Being younger than five and over 65
- Health conditions like asthma, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, or a heart, liver, or kidney conditions
- Weakened immune system – for example, as a result of a recent respiratory infection, like flu or a cold, certain medication, or chemotherapy
According to the NHS, people in these groups are more likely to require hospital treatment or experience complications if they develop pneumonia.
Potential complications of pneumonia include pleurisy – a condition that causes the thin linings between the lungs and ribcage to become inflamed, which can lead to respiratory failure. You can read more about the possible complications of pneumonia on the NHS website.
Is there a pneumonia vaccine?
If you’re at risk of becoming seriously ill with pneumonia, the NHS recommends that you get the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against infections that can cause pneumonia.
According to health experts, the vaccine can reduce a person’s likelihood of catching pneumonia by 50-70% and significantly reduce the risk of serious complications.
For more information on the pneumococcal vaccine, including eligibility, head over to the NHS website.
What else can I do to protect myself and others from flu and pneumonia?
Alongside getting appropriate vaccines if you’re eligible, there are other things you can do to help protect yourself and others from developing flu and pneumonia.
The first of these is practising good personal hygiene with steps like…
- Washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water
- Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when your cough or sneeze (if you don’t have a tissue to hand, it’s better to cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow than your hands)
- Putting used tissues in the bin as soon as possible
It’s also advisable to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or don’t feel well enough to carry out your normal activities. Remember, you’re more likely to spread flu to others in the first five days of being ill. Flu is caused by germs spread from coughs and sneezes that can survive on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.
Most cases of pneumonia are bacterial and aren’t passed on from one person to another, but practising good hygiene will still help to prevent germs from spreading. While these points may seem obvious, research shows that many people don’t follow these steps – with 40% of people not washing their hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing their nose.
Alongside personal hygiene, taking steps to strengthen your immune system by practising a healthy lifestyle will also give you the best chance of staying healthy during winter. This includes eating a healthy, balanced diet packed with essential vitamins and minerals, staying active, taking care of your gut health, staying hydrated, and stopping smoking.
For further guidance on this, you might like to check out our article; 8 ways to prepare for cold and flu season.
Winter is a hotbed for illnesses like flu and pneumonia, so many of us will be wanting to take steps to take care of our health. In some cases, these conditions can become serious so it’s important to do what we can to take care of ourselves and others.
For further reading, head to the general health section of our website where you’ll find more articles on how to stay healthy in autumn and winter.
Have you got any tips for protecting yourself against flu or pneumonia that you’d like to share? What will you be doing to stay healthy this winter? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.