Every year, millions of people in the U.S. get the flu (short for influenza). Flu season – from October through spring- is not winding down yet, in fact there is still very high flu activity in the U.S. The CDC has reported widespread influenza activity in 46 states, meaning outbreaks in at least half of the regions of a state. The CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 9.7 million flu illnesses, 87,000 hospitalizations and 4,800 deaths from flu.
Getting the flu vaccine, washing your hands frequently and not touching your face are the best ways to prevent the flu. But what if you come down with the flu, despite these efforts? Here, we answer questions about the early signs of sickness and what you can do to recover more quickly.
How Can You Tell If You Have the Flu?
Many flu symptoms overlap with those of the common cold. However, there are some key differences, such as:
The flu comes on all at once while a cold gets gradually worse.
You're not likely to have a fever with a cold, but you are with the flu (although not always). You might also experience chills.
You'll have more intense muscle and body aches with the flu.
Typically, colds don't cause headaches, but the flu does.
You'll feel noticeably fatigued and weak if you have the flu.
You also may experience a cough, sore throat, or a runny or stuffy nose. Vomiting and diarrhea are possible with the flu, too, although this is more common in children than adults.
What Should You Do If You're Feeling Sick?
If you feel sick, it's important to stay home to prevent spreading it to others. “If you do become ill, stay home to avoid infecting co-workers or other family members. When your symptoms diminish, usually about four to seven days, it will be safe to return to your regular routine and interactions,” said said Danielle Van Gemert, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician with Franciscan Physician Network Franklin Township Family Medicine in southeast Indianapolis.
Try to make yourself as comfortable as possible so you can get the rest you need to recover. A heating pad can provide relief for achy muscles, and a vapor rub may help you breathe better if you have sinus or chest congestion.
You also can help your body flush out the flu virus by staying hydrated. Sip water, tea, soup and hot water with lemon and honey, all of which can soothe a sore throat. If you feel up to eating, make sure you choose light and healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and lean protein that supply vitamins and nutrients your body needs to fight the flu virus.
For most people, rest is the best remedy. However, doctors may recommend antiviral medication to people at high risk of flu complications, including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions. Antiviral medication is most effective if taken within 48 hours of first experiencing symptoms.
If you are concerned that you may have the flu, contact your primary care physician or visit an urgent care center.
Are Natural Flu Remedies Helpful?
While some natural remedies show promising results for the prevention and treatment of the common cold, there is no scientific evidence that any natural remedy is effective against the flu. However, it's always a good idea to increase your intake of nutrient-rich foods and take a quality multivitamin that contains important immune-boosting vitamins, such as B6, C, D3 and E.
How Long Does the Flu Last?
Flu symptoms can last a few days to more than a week. It's safe to return to work or school when you're feeling better and haven't had a fever for at least 24 hours.
However, some people do develop complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections as a result of the flu virus. If your symptoms become severe – difficulty breathing, sudden dizziness, pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen, or constant vomiting – seek medical care from your doctor or an urgent care center.
When Is Flu Season Over?
While it’s hard to predict when each new flu season will begin or end, according to the CDC influenza is unpredictable. While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity, and length of the season varies from one season to another, however, influenza viruses typically circulate most commonly from late fall through early spring.
This is a big gap of time, so it is advised that you get a flu shot and be cautious of your health.
“My advice to patients is to remain diligent. Continue to practice good handwashing habits, cover your cough, preferably by coughing into your bent elbow. And keep your hands away from your mouth, ears and eyes as much as possible,” Dr. Van Gemert said.
Find a doctor near you by searching our healthcare provider directory or learn more about the flu vaccine.