With flu season here, protecting yourself from these nasty respiratory viruses should be a top priority. According to the National Institutes of Health, flu viruses are primarily spread through saliva droplets from coughing and sneezing. This can happen through the air or by touching shared objects. Detecting early symptoms of the flu not only helps prevent the spread of the virus, but you may also catch and treat the illness before it gets worse.
The days are getting shorter, and reduced sunlight might make you tired earlier than before. But there’s a stark distinction between being tired and feeling extreme fatigue. Sudden, excessive fatigue is one of the earliest signs of the flu, and is often a warning before other related symptoms appear. While fatigue is also a symptom of the cold virus, it’s more severe with the flu. If you notice sudden, extreme weakness and tiredness that interferes with your normal activities, your body may be preparing to fight the flu.
Body aches and chills are other notable distinctions between early flu and cold symptoms. When you’re coming down with the flu virus, you may mistakenly attribute body aches to something else, such as a recent workout. Body aches can occur anywhere in the body—especially the head and legs. Chills can accompany the body aches at the same time, or within hours of feeling the pain. The flu often causes chills before a fever develops.
A persistent cough is indicative of an early illness, and it may be a warning sign of the flu. The flu virus can lead to a cough accompanied by wheezing and chest tightness. Over the course of the virus 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, you may need to address the cough with your doctor to prevent further complications. Also call a doctor if you notice colored phlegm. Always cover your mouth when you cough to prevent spreading the infection.
Flu-related cough can quickly lead to a sore throat. Some viruses, however, 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 tea, soups, and water to soothe any discomfort.
Fever is a sign that your body is trying to fight off an infection. Flu-related fevers are typically 100 degrees Fahrenheit 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 are both effective fever-reducers, but these medicines can’t cure the virus.
Early flu symptoms can also extend below the head, throat, and chest. Some forms of the virus can cause diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such symptoms are more prevalent in young children compared with adults. Dehydration is a dangerous complication of diarrhea and vomiting, so you should have electrolytes on hand to help combat it early on.
The flu is a progressive illness, and its symptoms tend to get worse before they get better. Not everyone responds the same to a particular virus. Furthermore, your overall health can play a role in determining the severity of your symptoms. Early symptoms that are considered worthy of emergency medical care include:
- chest pain
- breathing difficulties
- bluish skin and lips
- severe dehydration
- dizziness and confusion
- recurring fever (with or without worsening cough)
If you’ve been diagnosed with the flu, be prepared to allow yourself a reasonable recovery period. The 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. The recovery rate varies on the severity of the flu. Even after feeling better, you might experience a lingering cough for a few weeks. Always see a doctor if the flu comes back or gets worse after an initial recovery.