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Paula Radcliffe on how asthma ensures she never misses her flu jab

The record-breaking athlete urges others in 'at-risk' groups to get the vaccine as a precaution, writes Abi Jackson

Having asthma was never going to stop Paula Radcliffe from being an athlete - but she knew managing the condition well was going to be crucial.

How? Avoiding triggers ("pollen is one of my triggers, dust, cigarette smoke, air pollution and extremes of temperature"), listening out for early warning signs and symptoms, being on top of her inhaler routine, and getting an annual flu jab.

Here, the six-time world champion tells us why she's teamed up with global healthcare brand Sanofi Pasteur to highlight the importance of people in 'at-risk groups' protecting themselves against flu...

'I've been getting the vaccine since I was a teen'

While anyone can enquire about, and pay for, a flu jab, the vaccine's free on the NHS for eligible groups, including over-65s, pregnant women and those with certain long-term medical conditions. Why? Well 'at-risk groups' can be more susceptible to infections, and more vulnerable to the effects of getting sick and developing complications.

"I quickly learned that if I get any sort of cold, and flu especially, the risks of that developing into bronchitis - or, even worse, pneumonia - and me ending up having to have a really significant amount of time off training and away from work, were pretty big," explains Paula, one of the UK's most successful ever distance runners. "So I've been getting the vaccine since I was about 18."

The NHS recently warned that this winter could be a bad one in terms of flu (Australia and New Zealand both had a 'heavy flu season'), so those in at-risk groups are being urged to get the jab.

Uptake among under-65 clinical at-risk groups (people with long-term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune conditions) has been relatively low so far, and last winter more than half (51%) of people within these groups did not get vaccinated.

But flu shouldn't be taken lightly. While we may sometimes use the term 'flu' to describe a very heavy cold (which can, to be fair, make people feel utterly dismal), genuine flu can make people very unwell, with symptoms including a sudden fever, upset stomach, chills, plus weak, aching muscles and limbs, alongside generally severe malaise (for instance, you might not be able to get out of bed). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), flu epidemics result in three to five million cases of severe illness annually. In the UK, it's believed to be a factor in 4,000-14,000 deaths per year.

'Having asthma doesn't have to stop you doing anything'

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Safety first: Paula Radcliffe views the jab as part of her asthma care

For mum-of-two Paula (43), who is married to Co Antrim man Gary Lough, getting the jab is a no-brainer, and just part of how she keeps on top of her health.

Around 5.4 million people in the UK receive treatment for asthma, according to the charity Asthma UK, making it a relatively common condition. Sometimes described as having 'sensitive' airways, for people with asthma, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs are more inflamed and can suffer potentially serious reactions when exposed to 'triggers'.

Paula is passionate about spreading the message that asthma doesn't have to hold you back, however, because while it's not curable, it can be well-managed.

"I think that's one of the things to really encourage, especially in children who are diagnosed - this is not something that's going to take over your life and stop you doing anything. But you are going to have to learn how to manage it," says Paula, who's loved running since she was a child (she joined Bedford and County Athletics Club at age 11, and by 16 was at the World Cross Country Championships).

Diagnosed with asthma at 14, she says she was "lucky" because she "had a very proactive, very good family doctor".

'I feel safer when I've had a flu jab'

Flu jabs don't offer total protection (they can only protect against certain strains, for example) but evidence suggests they can significantly help. Plus, if you did still get flu, there's a chance it'll be less severe and last for less time than if you haven't been vaccinated at all.

Paula recalls a few occasions over the years when she still got sick - including once, around 2000 in the US, where she "developed really bad bronchitis and borderline pneumonia, and ended up in a medical centre on the nebuliser" - but on the whole, she knows her annual jabs aren't something she can afford to skip.

"It can save a lot of hassle and loss of work and personal time, and loss of health in winter, just by having that shot," says Paula, who also takes steps to up the family's intake of vitamin D and omegas (fatty acids) to help stay healthy during winter ("all of us like fish, so that's a good thing, we keep our omegas up very well, and the kids take a multivitamin in winter").

"The biggest thing for me (in terms of living with asthma) is to manage it really well, so symptoms don't flare up. I take a preventative inhaler morning and night, and then have my 'reliever' inhaler when I need it. I always travel with a peak flow monitor and nasal sprays," Paula adds. Taking precautionary steps help her feel in control.

"I feel like I've got a bit of a safety barrier when I've had the flu vaccine. Especially if you're travelling a lot, or using public transport - and someone starts sneezing around you and you get really paranoid, trying not to breathe in or touch anything. But if you've had the vaccine, you're a little bit more relaxed."

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