Flu season can hit hard, causing you to take time off from work or school while you spend time recovering from your symptoms. Even if you get the latest vaccine, you can still come down with the flu particularly during autumn and winter. That’s why it’s important to learn the symptoms; when you recognize them early on, you can start treatment and ease some of the discomfort.
What Is the Flu?
Influenza, otherwise known as the “flu,” is a respiratory illness. It’s caused by a virus, and it’s easily transmitted from person to person. It can cause a range of symptoms that range from mild to severe.
Because the influenza is a virus, it mutates, meaning that it changes its structure over time. That’s why people need to get flu shots every year. The previous year’s shots were made to combat the prominent strains that were circulating that year, but by the time the next flue season rolls around, different versions of the virus begin making people sick, so the vaccines are no longer effective. They’re just different enough to infect you, but not enough to cause distinctly different symptoms.
Because the flue is a respiratory illness, it primarily affects your nose, throat and sometimes lungs. If you come down with the flu, you’re likely to experience symptoms in these areas of your body — and others. About 8% of the U.S. population comes down with the flu every year.
How Do You Catch the Flu?
The flu virus spreads while people are in the contagious stage of the illness. When you talk, cough or sneeze, tiny, virus-infected droplets spray out of your mouth and sometimes your nose. When this happens, the droplets can land in other people’s mouths or noses, infecting them in the process. This isn’t the only way the flu spreads, however.
The droplets can land on surfaces and remain active there for several hours. They tend to survive longest on hard surfaces like stainless steel and plastic, and they don’t remain active as long outside your body when they land on fabric or other soft surfaces. If you touch an infected surface and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, you might infect yourself with flu germs. The most common way to contract the flu, though, is by inhaling droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.
The contagious stage of the flu can last quite a while, and it’s possible that, in the earliest stage, you’ve been infected but aren’t showing any symptoms yet. During this time, which lasts about a day or two, you can still pass the virus to other people. You can also transmit the flu to other people for around seven days or so after you start experiencing symptoms.
Flu Virus Symptoms
Although flu viruses are somewhat different from each other from year to year, the symptoms they cause generally remain the same. Although some of the symptoms resemble those of the common cold, the flu comes on more suddenly instead of worsening progressively over the course of a few days.
It’s common for the flu to give you some respiratory symptoms. You might have a running or congested nose and a sore throat. A persistent, dry cough is also an early symptom you may experience before some of the more uncomfortable effects of the flu develop. This virus also causes pain. The muscles all over your body may ache, causing you to feel weak and making it difficult to move. You might also experience a headache because your nasal and sinus cavities become inflamed.
Another hallmark of the flu is a fever, meaning your body temperature is over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This is another symptom that’s common in the earlier stages of the flu, and it’s often accompanied by chills that cause you to shiver. You may also feel extremely tired, and this fatigue can come on quickly. While you’re this exhausted, you may find it difficult to engage in your normal daily activities.
When you have the flu, you might feel some or all of these symptoms. Some may be more severe than others. Although some people believe that the flu always causes a fever, this isn’t necessarily the case. You can still have the flu and not have a fever, headache or other common symptom.
With rest and proper care, you can usually treat the flu on your own at home. But it’s essential to remember that not everyone responds to the virus the same way. Sometimes, the flu is more severe and can cause symptoms that require emergency medical care.
If you’re experiencing chest pain and tightness, problems breathing or a blue tint to your skin and lips, get medical care right away. Your body may not be getting enough oxygen, and it’s important that you’re under a doctor’s care to treat these symptoms.
A fever that doesn’t go away after a few days, goes away and comes back or keeps climbing higher also requires emergency care. You may also feel dizzy or confused; even if your fever isn’t worsening, you should still have a physician check monitor these symptoms.
Your flu symptoms should begin to ease and disappear within a week or two. If they’re not getting worse but they also don’t seem to be getting better, call up your primary care physician to learn your next steps.
Treatment Options for the Flu
Your doctor may perform a test to diagnose you with the flu, but it’s more common that they’ll ask about your signs and symptoms to figure out what’s going on. After diagnosing you with the flu, your doctor might prescribe an antiviral medicine that can lessen your symptoms if you take it soon enough after those symptoms begin. This medicine can shorten the time you’re sick and help prevent complications. Usually, doctors save this type of treatment for people who have severe cases of the illness or those who are at a higher risk of developing complications.
Getting plenty of rest and drinking fluids while staying home are some of the most effective treatments for helping your body fight the infection. Opt for clear liquids like water, juice and broth to keep yourself from dehydrating. Sleeping as much as you need to can help your immune system fight off the virus. Over-the-counter pain relievers, cough suppressants and decongestants can help you manage your symptoms and keep yourself more comfortable.