A slight tickle in your throat, body aches, and a sudden fever could be some of the first signs that you’re coming down with the flu.

The influenza virus (or flu for short) affects up to 20 percent of the U.S. population each year. It’s crucial that you recognize the symptoms early so you can start taking care of yourself.

It’s especially critical for young children, older adults, pregnant women, or people with conditions that affect their respiratory or immune systems to seek medical attention quickly.

These tips will not only help you feel better faster, but also help prevent the spread of this highly contagious virus to other people in your community.

Recognizing the signs of the flu

It’s easy to mistake the flu for a minor cold at first. While the flu shares many of the symptoms of the common cold, symptoms of the flu are typically more severe and come on quicker.

Early signs of the flu include:

  • fatigue
  • sudden fever (usually above 100°F [38°C])
  • scratchy or sore throat
  • cough
  • chills
  • muscle or body aches
  • runny nose

Keep in mind that a fever is common in the early stages of the flu, but not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

What to do

If you notice that you’re experiencing signs of the flu, follow these tips:

  • Wash your hands frequently to prevent the spread of the virus. Aim for about 20 seconds of scrubbing with soap and water before rinsing.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with your arm instead of your hands, or direct them into a disposable tissue. The flu is highly contagious and easily spreads through the air if you cough or sneeze.
  • Eat healthy to boost your immune system. Though you might lose your appetite when you’re sick, eating small meals rich in fruits and vegetables will help give your body the strength it needs to fight off the virus.
  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water, tea, and low-sugar electrolyte drinks. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Purchase the essentials, such as tissues, over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, cough suppressants, your favorite tea, and fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on while you’re at home. If you’re already feeling ill, though, it might be a good idea to ask a friend or loved one to do your shopping for you.
  • Alert your workplace. It can be hard to take off from work, but your boss will appreciate it if you stay home to avoid getting your co-workers sick.
  • Stay home and rest. Ultimately, the best treatment for the flu is to get enough rest.

What not to do

At the first signs of the flu, avoid doing any of the following:

  • Don’t go to work or school. You’re contagious a day or two before your symptoms begin and remain contagious for up to five to seven days after you started feeling sick.
  • Don’t shake people’s hands or hug them. You don’t want to play a role in spreading the virus, so avoid making physical contact with others or sharing food and drinks.
  • Don’t push yourself. The flu is a progressive illness, meaning your symptoms will worsen before they get better. Depriving your body of rest in the first couple days after symptoms start can end up lengthening the time it takes for you to recover.
  • Avoid processed foods and sugar, as these foods won’t give you many nutrients.
  • Try not to skip meals. It’s fine to eat a little less when you have the flu, but your body still needs nutrition and energy to fight off the virus. Soup, yogurt, fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, and broth are all great options.
  • Don’t venture into crowded places since the flu is highly contagious.
  • Be cautious with unproven herbal remedies. If you want to try an herbal remedy, be careful. Herbs and supplements aren’t scrutinized by the FDA for quality, packaging, and safety. Make sure to buy them from a reputable source or ask your doctor for a recommendation.
  • Don’t smoke. The flu is a respiratory illness, and smoking will irritate your lungs and make your symptoms worse.

When to see a doctor

You might think it’s safe to just stay home and rest if you’ve come down with the flu. But it’s a good idea to see a doctor if you fall into any of the categories below.

You’re considered high risk

Some people are at a higher risk of experiencing dangerous flu-related complications, like pneumonia or bronchitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high-risk individuals include:

  • people ages 65 years and older
  • children younger than two years of age
  • people who live with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease)
  • people with a compromised immune system
  • women who are pregnant or up to two weeks postpartum
  • residents of nursing homes

If you fit into one of these categories, you should see a doctor at the earliest signs of the flu. A doctor may decide to prescribe an antiviral medication. These medications work best when they’re taken within the first 48 hours after symptoms start.

You’re experiencing severe symptoms

For adults, signs of an emergency include:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • severe or persistent vomiting
  • sudden dizziness

For infants and children, emergency flu symptoms include:

  • trouble breathing
  • blueish skin
  • irritability
  • fever that accompanies a rash
  • inability to eat or drink
  • no tears when crying

Flu-like symptoms get better, but then get worse

Most people recover from the flu within one to two weeks. Others will start to get better and then find that their condition rapidly deteriorates and their fever spikes again.

If this happens, it could mean that you have a flu complication like pneumonia, an ear infection, or bronchitis. You should see a doctor right away.

The bottom line

While you may be able to carry on working or going to the gym with a cold, the flu may make you feel too ill to follow your usual routine. It can be difficult to miss work or school, but if you’re starting to notice early signs of the flu, do yourself and everyone else a favor and stay home, especially if you have a fever. If you go out while sick, you could be putting other people at great risk for serious illness and you’ll only be making your recovery more difficult.