If you’ve ever had the flu, you’re all too familiar with its icky symptoms…body aches, chills, and the general feeling of being under the weather. What should you do when those symptoms strike?
Each year, millions of Americans are diagnosed with the flu–a viral infection caused by influenza. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the flu resulted in between 9.4 million and 41 million illnesses each year between 2010 and 2022.
While you may not think of the flu as being a serious illness, it definitely can be, particularly for older adults and those with diminished immune systems. In that same period between 2010 and 2022, as many as 710,000 hospitalizations occurred and as many as 52,000 deaths were caused by the flu.
Because the flu can cause mild to severe illness, it’s important to pay careful attention to your symptoms and seek medical attention if they begin to worsen.
“In many cases, the flu can be treated with basic at-home care,” says Fred Sesti, ANP with West Tennessee Medical Group. “But if you’re older, feeling particularly sick or at a higher risk of complications, check in with your provider, who may prescribe an antiviral to lessen the duration and intensity of your infection.”
Defining “the Flu”
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Each year, different strains of influenza are prevalent, and you can be infected by any of the strains.
The influenza virus spreads from person to person, primarily through viral droplets. When someone who is infected with the flu coughs, sneezes, or even speaks, you can be infected if you breathe in those droplets or touch them and then touch your face. Influenza can also spread if you touch a surface or object that’s been recently touched by someone who is infected.
The tricky part is that someone who has the flu is contagious one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after symptoms develop. That means it’s easy to pass it on without realizing you’re doing so.
Deciphering Flu Symptoms
Symptoms related to the flu often pop up quite quickly. If you have the flu, you may experience:
- Body aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
Children who have the flu may also experience vomiting and diarrhea, but those symptoms are less common among adults.
While the symptoms above have long been considered tell-tale signs of the flu, the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 made it much more difficult to know if you actually have the flu. Symptoms of COVID-19, particularly recent variants, often mirror those of the flu.
The only way to definitively know if you have the flu is to be tested. A rapid influenza test can confirm whether you are infected and what strain of the flu you have.
What to Do Next
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above and your symptoms are mild, you can choose to stay home and treat those symptoms. In the past, that was the most common recommendation for treating the flu, since you can’t treat this viral infection with an antibiotic.
If you’re at a high risk of complications or even simply don’t want to feel sick, you can check in with your medical provider. If it’s confirmed that you have the flu, your provider may prescribe an antiviral, which can help lessen the duration of the flu and intensity of your symptoms.
Certain symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, severe muscle pain, dehydration, or a high fever, are a sign that medical care is needed. You should also see a medical provider if your symptoms begin to worsen or linger for longer than a few days.
If you choose to ride out the flu and treat your symptoms at home, get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and use over-the-counter medications to alleviate individual symptoms. A decongestant or antihistamine, for example, may be helpful in relieving congestion, while an anti-inflammatory can ease fever and aches.
The CDC recommends staying at home and away from others for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medications. Once you’re feeling well again, take an extra step to protect yourself from getting sick again with a different strain of the flu—if you didn’t get your flu shot already this season, go ahead and do that now.
The flu shot is always your best defense against the flu, so keep yours on your annual to-do list.
Think you might have the flu? A quick and easy rapid test can provide a diagnosis in minutes. Schedule an appointment today with a West Tennessee Medical Group primary care provider.