During flu season, protecting yourself from viruses is a top priority. The flu virus can spread through saliva droplets that are projected when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can reach people and surfaces up to 6 ft. away. You can be exposed by breathing air containing these droplets or by touching objects that these droplets have landed on. Detecting early symptoms of the flu can prevent the spread of the virus and possibly help you treat the illness before it gets worse.
Shorter days and reduced sunlight can make you feel tired, but there’s a difference between being tired and experiencing extreme fatigue. Sudden, excessive fatigue is one of the earliest signs of the flu, and it may appear before other symptoms. Fatigue is also a symptom of the common cold, but it’s more severe with the flu. Extreme weakness and tiredness may interfere with your normal activities, so it’s important that you limit activity and allow your body to rest. For example, take a few days off from work or school and stay in bed. Rest can strengthen your immune system and help you fight the virus.
Body aches and chills are also common flu symptoms. If you’re coming down with the flu virus, you may mistakenly blame body aches on something else, such as a recent workout. Body aches can manifest anywhere in the body, especially in the head, back, and legs. Chills may also accompany body aches. The flu may cause chills even before a fever develops. Wrapping yourself in a warm blanket can increase your body temperature and reduce chills. If you have body aches, you can take over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
A persistent cough can indicate an early illness, and it may be a warning sign of the flu. The flu virus can also cause a cough with wheezing and chest tightness. You might cough up phlegm or mucus, but this is rare in the early stages of the flu.
If you have respiratory problems, such as asthma or emphysema, you may need to consult a doctor to prevent further complications. Also, call a doctor if you notice colored phlegm. Flu complications can include bronchitis and pneumonia. Take cough drops or cough medicine to calm a cough from the flu. Keeping yourself and your throat hydrated can also help. You can sip on water and caffeine-free teas. Always cover your cough to prevent spreading the infection.
Flu-related coughing can quickly lead to a sore throat. Some viruses can actually cause a swollen throat without a cough. In the earliest stages of the flu, your throat may feel scratchy and irritated. You may also feel a strange sensation when you swallow food or drinks. If you have a sore throat, it will likely get worse as the virus progresses. Stock up on caffeine-free tea, chicken soup, and water. You can also gargle with 8 oz. of warm water, 1 tsp. of salt, and 1/2 tsp. of baking soda.
Fever is a sign that your body is fighting off an infection. Flu-related fevers are typically 100˚F (38˚C) or higher. While a fever is a common symptom in early flu stages, not everyone with the flu will have a fever. Also, you might experience chills with or without fever while the virus runs its course. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) are both effective fever reducers, but these medicines can’t cure the virus.
Early flu symptoms can extend below the head, throat, and chest. Some strains of the virus can cause diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. Dehydration is a dangerous complication of diarrhea and vomiting. To avoid dehydration, drink sports drinks, fruit juices, caffeine-free teas and sodas, and broth.
The flu virus also causes the above symptoms in children. However, your child may have other symptoms that require medical attention. These can include:
- not drinking enough fluids
- crying with no tears
- not waking up or interacting
- being unable to eat
- having fever with a rash
- having difficulty urinating
It can be hard to know the difference between the flu and a cold in children. With both a cold and flu, your child can develop a cough, sore throat, and body aches, but symptoms are more severe with the flu. If your child doesn’t have a fever, it may be an indication that they have a cold instead. If you’re concerned about any symptoms your child has developed, you should call their pediatrician.
The flu is a progressive illness. This means that symptoms will worsen before they get better. Not everyone responds the same to a particular virus. Additionally, your overall health can determine the severity of your symptoms. The flu virus can be mild or severe. Seek immediate medical care if you have the following symptoms:
- chest pain
- breathing difficulties
- bluish skin and lips
- severe dehydration
- dizziness and confusion
- recurring fever
- worsening cough
If you’ve been diagnosed with the flu, allow yourself a reasonable recovery period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you don’t go back to work until you’ve been fever free for 24 hours without medication. Even if you don’t have a fever, you should still consider staying home until other symptoms improve. It’s safe to return to work or school when you can resume normal activity without becoming tired. The recovery rate varies. Even after feeling better, you might experience a lingering cough and fatigue for a few weeks. Always see a doctor if the flu comes back or gets worse after an initial recovery.
The good news is that the flu virus is preventable. Getting a flu shot every year is one of the best ways to protect yourself. The flu shot is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older, including pregnant women. According the CDC, the nasal spray flu vaccine should not be used during 2016–2017. Other preventative measures include:
- avoiding close contact with sick people
- staying home if you’re sick, especially if you have a fever
- covering your cough to protect others
- washing your hands
- limiting how frequently you touch your mouth or nose