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Freshers' flu: what actually is it?

The last year has prepped us all for COVID-19 - but just how much do you know about freshers' flu?

By James Emery, SciTech Deputy Editor

The last year has prepped us all for COVID-19 - but just how much do you know about freshers' flu?

Nearly everyone who has been through freshers' week will have tales of the infamous 'freshers' flu' which leaves you feeling down in the dumps. But what actually causes this illness and what are the best ways to avoid it?

Did you know that ‘fresher’s flu’ is not necessarily even caused by the flu virus? In fact, it’s actually just a really bad cold which is brought on by a range of factors that you are exposed to in your first few weeks at university. These factors work together to weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to a range of viruses that target your respiratory tract, the most common of which is the rhinovirus.

These infections then cause you to be congested, have a runny nose, a sore throat, and just feeling generally tired (which isn’t what you want in your first few weeks at university!)

Freshers' week is a melting pot of different viruses

The main factor that causes all of this is the coming together of thousands of different people at the start of term, all of them from different places. This then makes freshers' week a melting pot of different viruses which you will not have immunity to, leaving you susceptible to getting an infection. These viruses are then spread around when students mingle together at events like the freshers' fair and club nights, and before you know it nearly everyone is feeling under the weather.

The amount of drinking that takes place during freshers' week also plays a key role in getting sick. This is due to alcohol being an immune suppressant, mainly through damaging cells within the respiratory tract and stomach, and causing impairments in immune cells throughout the body.

Alcohol acts as an immune suppressant | Epigram/James Emery

The damage caused to the respiratory tract can cause the cilia, small hair-like appendages found on the epithelial cells which move mucus out of the lungs, to stop working. This contributes to increased infection due to the mucus and the pathogens trapped within it not being pushed up and out the lungs and into the stomach where they are destroyed. These effects on the immune cells not only make it easier for you to become ill but also exacerbate the symptoms, which is what makes you feel so awful!

Another major reason for catching freshers' flu is the diet that most of us have during freshers' week, which is not great to say the least. All the junk food that is usually eaten can really have an impact on the immune system. This happens due to the high amount of calories and fat found in junk food which causes the immune system to mount an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response could increase the severity of the symptoms of freshers' flu and make you feel even worse! Research at the University of Bonn has shown that unhealthy foods can also lead to immune suppression, making it even more likely for you to get ill.

So, what can you do to stop yourself from getting freshers' flu? I could tell you to not drink or eat junk food or stay up late during fresher’s week, but we all know that’s not going to happen.

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The best thing that you can do is to make sure that you drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated and flush the toxins from the alcohol out of your system. Try to swap the pizza for some veg a couple of times in the week - taking a vitamin can help as well! You can also put some of the skills we gained during the pandemic to use and sanitise regularly when going to bars and clubs or meeting large groups of people.

Featured Image: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

If you have any cold-like symptoms, always complete a lateral flow COVID-19 test as soon as possible, available from any pharmacy. The symptoms of fresher’s flu and COVID-19 are remarkably similar.