Cough, splutter, ache, groan. It might seem no time since we were slathering on the sun cream, but as the days shorten and the wind bites, it’s only a matter of time until the first flu bug strikes.
Real flu, that is, not some wishy-washy sneezing and snuffling, but the real deal, that at best can flatten even the fittest and healthiest, at worst can claim lives.
GP surgeries have already started dishing out flu vaccines in preparation for the annual bug blitz to vulnerable groups of patients.
And for the first time, toddlers and some primary school age children are involved in a mass vaccination aimed at preventing the spread of the winter flu bugs.
Fifty-nine primary schools across Lothian have been taking part in the first phase of what will eventually become a national vaccination programme involving children from two years old up to 17.
More than 15,500 primary pupils in the NHS Lothian area have been included in the initial phase, each receiving a quick nasal spray inoculation aimed at protecting them from the most likely forms of flu that are expected to strike.
In addition, parents and carers of around 120,000 Scots toddlers aged between two and three have received letters calling them to doctors’ surgeries to receive their protection from the winter bug.
The childhood vaccination programme will expand in coming years to include all children from two up to 17, right across the country.
According to Dr Nicola Steedman, senior medical officer for the Scottish Government, the flu vaccine is a vital public health weapon that not only saves misery for many, but saves lives.
“The vaccine is the best prevention we have against something which the public tend to under-estimate in terms of impact,” she says. “Some people say they’ve never had flu but they are the lucky ones. It is far better to be safe than sorry.”
Among the groups most at risk from complications of flu are the over-65s and those under 65 who have certain underlying medical conditions such as lung, kidney and heart diseases and neurological illnesses. Pregnant women are also recommended to have the vaccination.
Healthcare workers are also advised to be vaccinated, not just to help prevent them falling ill and being unable to care for their vulnerable patients, but also to curtail the spread of the bug to people who may be most at risk.
They include patients like multiple sclerosis sufferer Linzi Smith, 46, pictured far right, of Crewe Toll, who can still remember the last time she had “proper” flu 20 years ago and now fears an attack could leave her seriously ill.
“I can clearly remember the one time I had flu even though it was 20 years ago because it totally flattened me,” she says. “I was fit and healthy at the time, but it was still absolutely bloody awful, I was very ill and I hated it.”
Bad enough for a young, fit woman, but now Linzi has multiple sclerosis, she is already battling constant fatigue and uses crutches to get around. A bout of flu now, she says, would hit her even harder.
“Because I’m in the ‘at-risk’ group for the flu due to my multiple sclerosis, I’ve had my vaccination for this year already. The seasonal flu jab doesn’t cost anything to get, only a very small amount of time, and it’s definitely worth it in the long run.
“I want to avoid contracting flu again, as I was very poorly the last time I caught it and I took a very long time to recover. I was off work and bed ridden for over three weeks, which was very frustrating.
“I was too weak to even move around my own home and felt under the weather for a number of weeks after going back to work.
“Now, suffering from multiple sclerosis means that catching flu could result in serious health implications. I have a weakened immune system which means I would be hit a lot harder than a healthy person, should I get ill. I also live alone, so may struggle to look after myself.
“I’d rather get the jab and avoid the pain and worry of the potential health issues that flu could cause, and I certainly would not want to have to visit the hospital during the festive period.”
Linzi falls into the category of under-65s with existing medical conditions who are entitled to the free flu jab. They include people with common conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
Dr Steedman says claims that the jabs cause flu symptoms or that it’s good to allow children to have flu to “build up immunity” are ill-founded. “It’s actually not good for anyone to have flu,” she says. “Studies in America found that 40 per cent of children who died from flu in 2004-2012 did not have any underlying medical conditions, so flu can have very serious outcomes for children and adults even though they are perfectly healthy.
“Every year the World Health Organisation looks at different strains of flu circulating around the world and predicts what should go into the flu vaccine, which is why it’s important to be vaccinated every year.
“Generally their predictions are good, however a massive shift in a certain type can mean pandemics such as in 2009 and 2010 when we had swine flu.
“The fact that swine flu wasn’t worse than it was is a reflection on the good public health action that was taken at the time.”
The Fluenz nasal vaccination for children, she adds, could help make a dramatic difference to winter flu cases in the future. “The vast majority of children are able to have it, it avoids injection and most only need one dose to be vaccinated.
“It’s a live vaccine which can alarm people but it’s very clever, it’s weakened and can’t relocate or replicate elsewhere in the body because the temperature conditions won’t allow it to.
“Flu is devastating,” she adds, “it’s very serious for many people and very serious for children, even those who are generally healthy.
“It makes sense to be vaccinated.”
• Log on to www.immunisationscotland.org.uk for further information.
Vaccine for all under-18s
The first phase of a national programme to offer the flu vaccine to all two to 17-year-olds is now under way.
A selection of 59 primary schools across Lothian has already taken part in the programme which will eventually be phased in to all schools in coming years.
Experts believe the phased introduction will allow NHS boards to implement the programme as effectively as possible. Once the full programme is up and running around one million children will be vaccinated annually against flu in Scotland. This doubles the number of flu vaccinations currently given each year in Scotland from one million to two million.
The vaccination for children takes the form of a mist-like nasal spray called Fluenz which has been proven to be more effective in children and avoids the use of needles. An egg-free version is available.
Around 5000 children under 14 are hospitalised in Scotland every year with flu of which 2500 are under
Beat the bug
PREFER not to spend a week – maybe longer – feeling rotten? Beat the flu by sticking to these tips.
WASH your hands as often as possible. Just washing your hands thoroughly can kill off flu or stomach viruses.
WORK up a sweat. Do plenty of exercise – even though it’s cold outside, exercise helps to stimulate your immune system.
GET the zeds in. Your immune system functions much better when you get enough sleep.
VEG out. Hot peppers like habanero, cayenne, or the jalapeno, are packed with more vitamin C than a glass of orange juice. Apples, garlic and onions, along with brightly coloured fruits help boost the immune system.
STAY away. If you are ill stay at home which will help you recover and prevent the virus spreading.
KEEP your hands to yourself. Wash your hands regularly – particularly if you are often shaking hands with others.
REDUCE stress. Too much stress has a highly negative impact on overall health.
DON’T smoke and avoid smoke-filled places. First and second-hand smoke significantly impair your immune system. Smoke dries out your nasal passages and paralyses cilia, the small hairs in your nose and lungs that help keep out viruses.
BREATHE some fresh air. During the winter the dry heat from indoor heating systems dries out your mouth and nose and makes you more susceptible to viruses.