You’re worried you might have come down with the flu. Now what?
First it helps to make sure whatever you’re experiencing actually is the flu. “A lot of people get flus and colds mixed up in terms of symptoms,” says Vanessa Raabe, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone in New York City who specializes in infectious diseases. The flu season peaks between December and February but can begin a couple of months earlier and last a couple of months longer—right about the time that colds start making the rounds, too, she adds.
Why is it important to tell the difference? The flu can more dangerous than the cold and has different treatment options.
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself and others and speed up recovery. Here’s what you need to know, including symptoms that distinguish the flu from your everyday cold, how long it takes to feel better, and tips to lessen the severity and duration.
Sure, the flu and the cold are both viruses that circulate around the same time of the year. But a cold is confined to the upper airway while a flu is a systematic disease, says Anthony Fauci, M.D., the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In other words, your entire body takes a hit.
The following can help you tell the flu apart from the common cold:
Other common flu symptoms include a cough and a runny or stuffy nose. Sneezing and a sore throat are more common with colds than the flu, Fauci adds.
How long does it take to get over the flu?
Most people feel better in a few days. However, it can take up to a few weeks to get over fatigue, body aches, and incessant coughing.
“The flu causes a lot of irritation. Even when the acute infection is gone, it takes time for inflammation to go down,” says Raabe. Recovery time varies by person and may be impacted by whether you were previously vaccinated against the flu, adds Madaline.
Skip the ER (unless you’re super sick or at risk of complications) to avoid spreading the virus to other people in the waiting room, Madaline advises. Call your doctor at the first signs of symptoms instead.
Medicines can’t cure the flu, but you can lessen the severity and duration of the virus. Here’s how:
Get an antiviral prescription
Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Baloxavir prevent the flu virus from replicating and spreading in the body. They can shave off about a day’s worth of illness, reduce the risk of complications, and decrease your chance of passing the virus on to someone else, says Madaline. However, they only work if taken within 24 to 48 hours of your first symptoms.
In fact, unless you’re at higher risk of flu complications, your doctor likely won’t give an antiviral prescription if it’s too late. That’s why it’s so important to contact your doctor right away if you think you’re sick.
Take a pain reliever
Popping an acetaminophen or ibuprofen helps ease fever as well as muscle and body aches. Madaline recommends checking with your doctor first if you have liver or kidney disease to ensure you get the right dose. It’s best to avoid aspirin if you have the flu as it can sometimes lead to a rare but serious condition known as Ryes’ syndrome that causes liver and brain swelling, says Raabe.
That’s probably all you’ll want to do anyway—and for good reason, since it’s what your body needs to recover, says Fauci.
Drink lots of fluids
You may need double or triple the amount of water you usually drink, especially if you have a fever. “You’re losing fluid even though don’t realize it,” says Fauci.
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Protect your family and friends
Skip work or school. The flu virus spreads easily via the surfaces you touch and air droplets up to a few feet from where you cough or sneeze, says Raabe.
At home, try to keep yourself quarantined as much as possible. Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze, wipe down surfaces with disinfectant cleaners, and wash your hands frequently.
Protect yourself and others from the flu virus
Getting a flu shot is the best way to avoid getting the flu. Every year, the vaccine is updated to protect against strains that experts expect to be the most common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting vaccinated at the start of the flu season, which begins as early as October.
Just know, that you can get the flu even if vaccinated. Some people don’t have as robust of an antibody response to vaccination, says Raabe. The flu also mutates quickly, meaning your body might not recognize the virus even if you’ve been vaccinated.
The good news is, even if you do get sick, vaccination decreases the severity of symptoms, the risk of complications, and the chances you’ll infect others, notes Madaline.
One common misperception is that the vaccine itself makes you sick. It doesn’t. “It’s designed to elicit an immune response, and part of that can be feeling under the weather for day or two,” says Raabe—but you won’t get nearly as sick as if you actually had the flu. Some people also mistake a cold virus they happened to catch around the same time for the flu, she adds.
When to call the doctor
See your doctor if your symptoms are getting worse, or if you feel better and get worse again, which could indicate you’re sick with a sinus or ear infection. “The flu causes inflammation, which makes it easier for bacterial infections to settle in and make you sick,” says Raabe.
Other symptoms that warrant a doctor’s visit include difficulty breathing; severe chest pain; weakness or dizziness to the point where you’re unable to get up; and feeling confused or unable to think clearly.
In very rare cases, the flu can affect the brain and heart or cause pneumonia. Some people are more at risk of complications,including:
“The additional stress the flu places on the body tends to make those conditions worse,” says Raabe. Check in with your doctor early on if you’re among one of these groups that’s at higher risk for complications.
In some cases, the flu can even kill you: It was linked to 79,000 deaths last year, according to the CDC.
“People don’t appreciate how serious it can be,” says Fauci. “It’s rare that an otherwise healthy individual goes to the hospital and dies of respiratory failure, but we see it every year.”
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