You worry about getting the flu. Now what?
First, it helps make sure whatever it’s really experiencing is the flu "Many people mix flu and colds 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 it can begin a couple of months before and last a couple of months, just at the time when colds also begin to circulate, he adds.
Why is it important to notice the difference? The flu can be more dangerous than the cold and has different treatment options.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and others and speed recovery. This is what you need to know, including the symptoms that distinguish the flu from your daily cold, how long it takes to feel better, and tips to reduce the severity and duration.
Of course, the flu and the cold are viruses that circulate around the same time of the year. But a cold is limited to the upper airway, while influenza is a systematic disease, says Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In other words, your whole body gets hit.
The following can help you differentiate the flu from the common cold:
Other common flu symptoms include cough and runny nose or nasal congestion. Sneezing and sore throat are more common with colds than with the flu, Fauci adds.
Most people feel better in a few days. However, it can take a few weeks to overcome fatigue, body aches and incessant cough.
“The flu causes a lot of irritation. Even when the acute infection disappears, the inflammation takes a while to disappear, ”says Raabe. Recovery time varies by person and may be affected if you were previously vaccinated against the flu, adds Madaline.
Skip the emergency room (unless you are super sick or at risk of complications) to avoid transmitting the virus to others in the waiting room, Madaline advises. Call your doctor at the first signs of symptoms.
Medications cannot cure the flu, but it can decrease the severity and duration of the virus. That's how:
Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu and Baloxavir prevent the influenza virus from replicating and spreading in the body. They can reduce the disease in one day, reduce the risk of complications and decrease the chance of transmitting the virus to another person, says Madaline. However, they only work if they are taken within 24 to 48 hours of your first symptoms.
In fact, unless you have a higher risk of flu complications, your doctor probably won't give you an antiviral prescription if it's too late. That is why it is so important to contact your doctor immediately if you think you are sick.
Popping an acetaminophen or ibuprofen helps relieve fever and muscle and body aches. Madaline recommends checking with your doctor first if you have liver or kidney disease to make sure you get the correct dose. It is better to avoid aspirin if you have the flu, as it can sometimes cause a rare but serious condition known as Ryes syndrome that causes inflammation of the liver and brain, says Raabe.
That is probably all you want to do anyway, and for good reason, since that is what your body needs to recover, says Fauci.
You may need to double or triple the amount of water you usually drink, especially if you have a fever. "You're losing liquid even if you don't realize it," says Fauci.
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Skip work or school. The flu virus spreads easily through the surfaces it touches and the air drops a few feet from where it coughs or sneezes, says Raabe.
At home, try to stay in quarantine as much as possible. Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or handkerchief when you cough or sneeze, clean surfaces with disinfectant cleansers and wash your hands frequently.
Getting a flu shot is the best way to avoid getting the flu. Each 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 beginning of the flu season, which begins in October.
Just know that you can get the flu even if you are vaccinated. Some people do not have such a strong antibody response to vaccination, says Raabe. The flu also mutates rapidly, which means that your body may not recognize the virus even if it has been vaccinated.
The good news is that, even if you get sick, vaccination decreases the severity of symptoms, the risk of complications, and the chances of infecting others, says Madaline.
A common misperception is that the vaccine itself makes you sick. It does not "It is designed to elicit an immune response, and some of that may feel under the weather for a day or two," says Raabe, but he will not get as sick as if he really had the flu. Some people also confuse a cold virus that they contracted with the flu at the same time, he adds.
Consult your doctor if your symptoms are getting worse, or if you feel better and get worse again, which could indicate that you are sick from a sinus or ear infection. "The flu causes inflammation, which makes it easier for bacterial infections to settle and get sick," says Raabe.
Other symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor include difficulty breathing; severe chest pain; weakness or dizziness to the point where you cannot get up; and feel confused or unable to think clearly.
In very rare cases, the flu can affect the brain and heart or cause pneumonia. Some people have a higher risk of complications, which include:
"The additional stress that the flu causes in the body tends to make those conditions worse," says Raabe. Check with your doctor from the beginning if you are among one of these groups that has a higher risk of complications.
In some cases, the flu can even kill you: according to the CDC, it was related to 79,000 deaths last year.
"People don't appreciate how serious it can be," says Fauci. "It is rare for a healthy person to go to the hospital and die of respiratory failure, but we see him every year."