Cue the fever, chills, cough and muscle aches. Flu season is here. And if you feel like you’ve been hit by the icky-sicky-achy-can’t-stay-awakey truck, chances are you’re experiencing the worst the flu season has to offer.
The flu is caused by influenza viruses and is a highly contagious respiratory illness. Flu symptoms hit fast, unlike a cold, and can lead to serious complications for some. Older adults and young children are at an especially high risk for serious flu symptoms.
This all means it’s really important for you to know what to do if you have the flu. You should know how to spot flu symptoms, what you can do to treat the flu at home and when you may need to see a doctor for the flu. Knowing these things will help you, your child or your loved one heal faster, and help protect others from getting sick.
First, let’s talk about common flu symptoms
If you’ve started feeling sick, you may be wondering: Do I have a cold or the flu? The only way to know for sure is to get an influenza test. But there are some telltale differences in symptoms.
Cold symptoms tend to come on slowly – first you might get a sore throat, a couple days later a runny or stuffy nose, and then maybe a wet cough settles in. The flu is usually the opposite, with symptoms setting in quickly and more intensely.
Some of the most common flu symptoms that you should be watching for include:
- Fever (100°F or more)
- Dry cough (no mucus or phlegm)
- Muscle aches and pain
- Extreme exhaustion
- Tiredness or weakness
- Chest discomfort
- Sore throat (sometimes)
- Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)
Concerned what you’re feeling may be COVID-19 and not the flu?
Both COVID-19 and the seasonal flu are highly contagious respiratory illnesses, which means they share some similar symptoms like high-grade fever, chills, cough, headache and more.
But there are some distinct differences, including how quickly symptoms set in, and cough type and severity. Also, there are some symptoms that are far more consistent with COVID-19 like shortness of breath or new loss of taste or smell.
If you want to know more, check out our post on COVID-19 versus flu symptoms. If you think you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, you can schedule a video visit to talk with a doctor about your symptoms and if you should get tested for COVID-19.
How to treat the flu at home
Step 1: Start with home remedies for the flu
As soon as you notice symptoms, there are a few things you can do to treat the flu at home while you monitor the situation or wait to talk with a doctor:
- Take it easy and get plenty of rest – Going to bed early and naps are highly encouraged. Rest helps speed recovery.
- Stay hydrated – Making sure you’re getting enough fluids (especially water) helps you get better faster and reduces risks of complications. Although you may feel like you don’t want to eat or drink, try taking small sips of water, juice or broth regularly throughout the day.
- Try saline nasal spray – If your symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, a saline nasal spray can help relieve pressure so you can breathe easier.
- Use over-the-counter medications to help lessen certain symptoms – Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) are often recommended by doctors to help reduce fevers and provide treatment for headache relief. However, if you’re treating a child with the flu, it’s important to only give them medications that have been recommended by their doctor. You should never give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) to children or teenagers who have the flu since it comes with a small risk of causing the potentially fatal Reye's Syndrome.
If you’re wondering what else you can take for the flu, there are antivirals like Tamiflu that can be effective. Do you need a prescription for Tamiflu or other antivirals? Yes – and we’ll get to that in Step 5.
What to eat when you have the flu
When you have the flu, you may not have much of an appetite. So, foods with milder flavors and that are easy to eat like soups, bananas, apples or applesauce, bread and rice can be good choices. But generally, eating fruits, vegetables like leafy greens, whole grains and lean proteins – all those foods that are part of a balanced diet – can help keep your body fueled to fight the flu virus.
If you’re experiencing nausea or vomiting, eating and drinking foods with ginger may help. Easy options include ginger ale, ginger hard candy, ginger lollipops or ginger tea.
Step 2: Plan to stay home for a bit – especially if you have a fever
You should stay home with the flu. You should not go to work or school if you have the flu. If you’re sick, you should stay home. You need to rest, and it can stop you from spreading germs around town.
It’s particularly important to stay home if you have a fever, and for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away (without the use of fever reducers). Why? Because you’re most contagious when you have a fever and the day after it breaks.
Step 3: Try to prevent the flu from spreading to other household members
If you have the flu, chances are you don’t want anyone else to feel as miserable as you do right now. But since you need to stay home, your family or household members are at a higher risk for getting sick. So, take steps to protect them as best you can:
- Keep your distance
- Don’t share food or drinks
- Wash your hands frequently
- Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough
- To kill the flu virus around your house, disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects such as countertops, door knobs or remote controls
Step 4: Get helpful advice from an experienced nurse practitioner
If you’re not sure if you have the flu or if you’re looking for home remedy advice, call your health care provider’s nurse line.
If you’re a HealthPartners patient or member, our care lines allow you to talk with a nurse 24/7, 365 days a year at no charge. They can give you more home remedy advice based on the symptoms you’re feeling and help you decide if it’s time to see a doctor for flu treatment.
To get in touch, call the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859 or the Park Nicollet Nurse Line at 952-993-4665.
Step 5: Get flu treatment at home to cure the virus fast
To help you cure the flu faster and protect you from severe complications, you may take an antiviral like Tamiflu or Relenza. But antivirals need a prescription and are most effective when taken closer to the onset of symptoms.
Whether you’re stuck at home with a fever or don’t have the strength to put on real pants, there are a couple of ways to get quality virtual care for the flu that fits your preferences.
Make an urgent care video visit appointment
Urgent care video visits are just like office visits, but you get to skip the trip to the clinic. Your doctor or nurse will listen to your symptoms, answer questions and work with you to create an influenza treatment plan if you need one.
Start a virtual visit anytime, anyplace through Virtuwell
With Virtuwell, no appointment is necessary – and treatment is available 24/7. Getting started is easy. Here’s how it works:
- We’ll start by asking you a few questions about your symptoms and medical history
- A board-certified nurse practitioner will review your answers, make a diagnosis and provide you with a treatment plan – all in about an hour
- If you need a prescription, the nurse can send it to a pharmacy of your choosing
- Each visit is just $59 or less, depending on your insurance
- Staff are available 24/7 in case you have any follow-up needs or questions – and there’s no additional charge
Step 6: Know when to get emergency care for serious flu symptoms
Most likely, Steps 1-5 will be all you need to get over the flu. But influenza is a serious illness, so it’s important to watch for more serious symptoms.
Go to the emergency room if you, your child or another loved one is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Flu-like symptoms that improved but then returned worse
- Chest pain or pressure
- Sudden dizziness (which can be especially common in older adults)
- Confusion or worse-than-normal mental function (which can be especially common in older adults)
- Severe or persistent vomiting (which is more common in children)
- Loss of appetite or refusal to eat or drink
Children – especially infants and toddlers – can experience other unique symptoms that can indicate something more serious is going on. Go to the nearest emergency room if your child:
- Is less than 3 months old and has a fever of above 100.4°F
- Is between 3 months old and 3 years old, has a fever of above 100.4°F, and is showing signs of dehydration (e.g., They have dry eyes or mouth, or they haven’t urinated in several hours)
- Has a fever with a rash
- Has skin or lips that have turned gray or blue
- Is extremely irritable
- Not waking up or interacting with you
Bonus step: Get your annual flu shot this year and every year
There are many reasons why you should get a flu shot, even if you’ve heard any flu shot myths to the contrary. When you get a flu shot, you’re up to 60% less likely to get the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And studies also show that if you do get sick with the flu, your symptoms will be less severe and you’re less likely to need hospital care to recover.
Flu shots are typically available in September, and it’s highly recommended that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated by the end of October. It’s safe to get the flu shot while pregnant, so pregnant people – particularly those in the third trimester of pregnancy – should receive a flu shot as soon as the vaccine becomes available.
For kids between 6 months and 8 years old, who’ve never been vaccinated against the flu before, two doses will be needed. It’s a good idea to plan to get the first dose as soon as the vaccine is available so the second dose can be received by the end of October. If kids have had a flu shot before, just one dose is needed.
Getting a flu shot is quick and easy. All you need to do is make a flu shot appointment at a time and clinic location that is most convenient for you. Since the shot takes just a couple minutes to prepare and administer, you’ll be in and out.
Stages of flu recovery: What to expect
Does the flu go away on its own? Yes. How long does it take to get over the flu? That can vary, but there are three key stages of the flu.
The beginning: Symptom onset
The timeline between exposure, infection and the first signs of flu symptoms is typically about two days, but can range from one to four days.
When you start to feel sick, it seems sudden. And if you’re like many people, the first symptoms you notice may be fever or chills, which are followed quickly by headache, muscle aches, cough and/or extreme tiredness.
The middle: Changes in symptom severity
Around day four, you’ll likely notice a shift in your symptoms. If you had a fever, it has broken. If you’re experiencing headaches and muscle aches, the severity has decreased.
But you may notice that other symptoms like chest discomfort, cough or sore throat are more prominent now.
The end: Symptoms go away
Usually, the flu lasts for about 7-10 days. But it’s not uncommon for the tiredness and fatigue symptoms to last 1-2 weeks longer as your body continues to recover.
Treat the flu seriously so you can get better quickly
Having the flu is no fun. So, use both flu home remedies and virtual treatment options so you can get the rest and care you need without leaving home.