THE death toll from flu in Scotland this winter has risen to 18, but experts say NHS staff are coping with the number of patients becoming seriously ill with the virus.

In the past week five new deaths from flu were reported to Health Protection Scotland (HPS), the agency which monitors infectious diseases.

Dr Jim McMenamin, epidemiologist for HPS, said the proportion of patients admitted to intensive care units with flu complications this season who had lost their lives was lower than in the past.

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He added that patients who die from flu tend to have other underlying health problems which are exacerbated by the virus.

He said: "Although flu might tip the balance at the beginning of your illness, those other conditions may worsen to a degree where, sadly, you are no longer able to survive despite the best efforts of our intensive care colleagues."

So far this winter 65 people with flu have been admitted to intensive care. Nine were under 15 years of age, 30 were in the age group 15-64 and 26 were 65 or older.

Dr McMenamin stressed the importance of patients who are eligible for the flu vaccine, such as pensioners, visiting their GP surgery for the injection. He also said anyone who felt their flu systems were persistent or deteriorating should see their doctor.

He added: "People with symptoms can reduce the risk they pose by covering their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they sneeze and cough, disposing of it appropriately and making sure they wash their hands afterwards."