You woke up with a sore throat and cough this morning, figured you were getting a cold, grabbed some lozenges, and went to work. Now it’s barely noon and you’re crashing—hard: body aches, chills, a throbbing pain behind your eyes, the whole nine yards.
Kinda sounds like you have the flu—and if If you’re normally the type to power right through illnesses, you might want to reconsider the whole not-staying-home-in-bed thing because the flu is not your average virus.
"The flu is a systemic infection, unlike viral infections [such as the common cold], or even sinus infections," says Christopher Thompson, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California. That means it affects multiple parts of your body (which is why people often say it feels like they go this by a truck). Even worse: It often strikes out of nowhere, with symptoms coming on over the course of just a few hours.
Sounds rough, right? With flu season right around the corner, it's best to arm yourself with literally all of the flu-related info you can handle, so Health spoke with doctors about what you can expect, should you come down with a case of the flu—including its symptoms, treatment options, and when you should finally stop dealing with it on your own and go see a doctor.
When do flu symptoms show up?
Once you’ve been exposed to the flu, it will only take a couple of days (read: one to four) to start experiencing symptoms, Christelle Ilboudo, MD, a University of Missouri Health Care infectious disease specialist, tells Health. Most people are sick for about one week, she says, though antivirals taken early on in your illness can shorten the duration slightly (more on that later, though).
Either way, you’re going to be waiting out the virus for a while. Here’s what to expect in terms of symptoms—but know that Dr. Ilboudo says everyone experiences the flu differently, with some people having only mild cold symptoms and others having the full roster of ailments: “People who present with more severe infections are typically people with underlying conditions like cancer, diabetes, or asthma, because it’s harder for their bodies to fight the virus," she says.
1. Fever, chills, and fatigue
So, normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—and a fever is technically anything that measures one degree above that, per the American Academy of Family Physicians. (FYI: It’s not uncommon for flu-related fevers to reach as high as 103 or 104 degrees, per Harvard Health.) Fevers are also often accompanied by chills, excessive weakness, and fatigue.
2. Body aches and headache
Because your body is responding to the foreign invasion with tissue and muscle inflammation, Dr. Ilboudo says body aches and headache are common. Combined with fever and the fact that people tend to drink less when they’re feeling ill, dehydration can contribute to your aches and pains, too.
3. Cough and sore throat
Coughing and post-nasal drip are common flu symptoms, says Dr. Thompson, which makes the flu particularly problematic for people with underlying pulmonary disorders like asthma, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
4. Congestion and runny nose
Per Dr. Ilboudo, the flu is a respiratory illness contracted by breathing in virus particles from the air (when you find yourself standing next to a sick person who’s sneezing or coughing, for example). Like many other respiratory illnesses, it can cause congestion, sneezing, and runny nose.
5. Vomiting and diarrhea
Dr. Thompson says that tummy troubles like vomiting and diarrhea during the flu are more common in children than in adults, but adults can definitely suffer from these symptoms also (as if the flu wasn’t bad enough already, right?!).
How can you relieve (or shorten) flu symptoms?
Unfortunately, there’s no real shortcut around the flu: yes, you can take care of yourself (and pop a bunch of OTC meds), but nothing is going to totally cure your illness—but you can help relieve (or shorten) your symptoms: "Hydration, rest, and Tamiflu can shorten the duration of the flu," says Dr. Thompson, "and OTC pain relievers or decongestants may lessen the severity—but you’ll still be sick for about 7 to 10 days."
In the interest of feeling better—even temporarily!—you’ve got a couple of self-medicating options. You can take a multi-symptom cold and flu medication, or combine individual medications targeted at specific symptoms (just make sure none of the things you’re taking include the same ingredients so you don’t accidentally double up on any dosages).
“It helps to have something that treats pain and fever, like Tylenol or ibuprofen, and congestion, like pseudoephedrine,” says Dr. Ilboudo. “Adults 12 years and older can take a cough suppressant but we don’t recommend those for children.”
FYI, Dr. Ilboudo also says that some medications designed to make you drowsy or help you sleep (like nighttime formulations) occasionally have the opposite effect on some people and overstimulate them instead. So what you take really depends on your personal preference and reaction to medications.
As for Tamiflu, the antiviral drug that can reduce the severity and duration of the virus, it's prescribed to people who have had the flu for less than two days, per the FDA—and can speed up recovery time by about that much. Dr. Thompson says the drug kicks in after about 48 hours, but you can also take it preventatively; if someone in your family or otherwise close to you has been sick with the flu, it may keep you from catching the virus (no guarantees though).
Other people who should consider taking Tamiflu before or after immediate onset of symptoms are those at high risk for complications (which includes babies, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immunocompromised), children under five, and people with asthma, high blood pressure or other chronic underlying conditions, says Dr. Ilboudo.
When should you call a doctor about your flu symptoms?
Most otherwise healthy people will recover from the flu without complications, but if you fall into one of the “underlying condition” categories, you should stay in touch with your doctor.
Dr. Ilboudo says you should be on the lookout for the following red flags:
- Chest pain or shortness of breath
- Persistent vomiting
- Illness lasting longer than one week
Of course, anyone—even a healthy person—experiencing serious symptoms as a result of the flu should contact a doctor immediately for evaluation. Pneumonia is commonly a deadly complication of the flu, per the American Lung Association.
Lastly, because it is so important: Get a flu shot. It can be a good way to both prevent and treat the flu. "Even in years where the vaccine is not a good match, it’s been shown time and time again that people who get the vaccine do better overall if they still get the flu,” says Ilboudo. So it's definitely worth the arm-jab.
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