The end of Christmas term will come as a welcome relief for many parents with latest figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) indicating that flu is now circulating in the community, especially amongst school children.

Increases have been seen particularly in the five to 14 age group, both from GP consultations and respiratory outbreaks in schools, as well as from calls to NHS Direct.

Following HPA advice on the increasing levels of flu circulating, the Department of Health has this week issued guidance on the use of antiviral drugs for the management of people presenting with flu-like illness in England who are at higher risk of developing complications from flu.

Dr Richard Pebody, head of seasonal flu surveillance at the HPA said: “We are seeing an increase in flu activity mainly among school children indicating the start of this year’s flu season. Flu vaccination is still the most effective way of preventing flu and it is not too late to get it so we would encourage all those who are in ‘at risk’ groups to get vaccinated as they are more vulnerable to developing complications from flu.

These include people with underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those with weakened immune systems, as well as older people and pregnant women.

“Latest vaccine uptake figures for one of the ‘at risk’ groups – the over 65 age group – are encouraging, with more than 70 per cent taking up the offer of the flu vaccine. We do however continue to encourage people in clinical ‘at risk’ groups, as well as healthcare workers and carers who could pass the infection to vulnerable people, to ensure they are vaccinated.

“As levels of flu have started to increase, the HPA has recommended that antivirals should be used for the treatment and prevention of flu in those who are at risk of serious complications. The use of antivirals is recommended each year when flu is considered to be circulating in the community.”

Symptoms of flu include sudden onset of fever, cough as well as sore throat, aching muscles and joints. The best advice for treating flu in healthy people is to stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and take pain relievers such as paracetamol. Children under 16 should not take any medicines containing aspirin. Maintaining good cough and hand hygiene, such as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze, disposing of the tissue as soon as possible and cleaning your hands as soon you can are important actions that can help prevent the spread of germs and reduce the risk of transmission.

Dr Richard Pebody added: "Although unpleasant, flu is a self-limiting illness and if you have flu it is best to stay at home until you are well. If people in at risk groups develop symptoms consistent with flu, or if anyone’s symptoms persist or become more severe, we advise they seek medical advice.

“Every season we remain vigilant and assess the flu situation as more information becomes available from our various surveillance systems and from the different virus samples we receive from across the UK.”