Do I Have the Flu? Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment Options


Summary
  • The flu (also known as influenza) is a common respiratory illness that can affect anyone at any point during the year.
  • Common symptoms of the flu include coughing, fever, nasal congestion, and muscle aches. You may also have a headache and sore throat.
  • The flu causes similar symptoms to a lot of other respiratory illnesses. That’s why it’s often recommended to get a flu test to be sure. This will also help you receive the correct treatment.
  • A flu infection can be often resolved with a combination of at-home remedies and over-the-counter medication. However, some people require additional treatment.

Although this illness is common, infections are usually mild and rarely lead to severe illness and fatalities. However, the flu is still responsible for 53,000 deaths per year.

Fatalities usually occur among very young children, older adults, and those with compromised immune systems who develop complications.

That’s why knowing if you have the flu and seeking the right treatment is key to preventing serious consequences.

Read on to learn about the signs and symptoms of the flu, how you can be sure of your diagnosis, and how to treat an infection.

What is the Flu?

The flu is a common respiratory illness that comes from the influenza virus. It’s extremely contagious, although it’s not usually life-threatening.

Who is most at risk for contracting the flu?

Anyone can become infected with the flu virus. However, the following groups of people have a slightly higher chance of becoming sick:

  • Children under the age of two

  • Adults older than 65

  • Pregnant people, especially during flu season

  • People with a weakened immune system

  • Anyone with a chronic illness such as diabetes or asthma, or heart, kidney, or liver disease

  • People with chronic lung disease

  • People with a BMI (body mass index) of 40 or higher

  • People in a long-term care facility like a nursing home

These groups are also more likely to develop more severe symptoms and serious complications, should they become infected.

An older man with white hair, a white mustache and beard, and glasses with black frames smiles off to the side. He is wearing a grey sweater with a button-down shirt underneath.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of the Flu?

Most people who have the flu only show mild symptoms that usually resolve without having to see a doctor. These may include:

  • Fever

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Cough or sore throat

  • Headache

  • Muscle aches

  • Fatigue

  • Chills

  • Nausea and vomiting (common in children)

These symptoms typically resolve within one week. However, some symptoms like coughing may last for a number of weeks.

Key Point: How Do I Know if I Have the Flu or COVID-19?

Both COVID-19 and the flu can cause similar symptoms like coughing, headaches, and fever.

The best way to tell the difference is to take flu and COVID-19 tests to help you determine which virus you are infected with.

While you wait for your results, it’s best to stay home to avoid infecting others.

How Long Does the Flu Last?

Flu-like symptoms can start to appear within three days of coming in contact with the virus. Then it may take up to one week for these symptoms to resolve before you will start feeling better.

Remember that you might still feel a bit under the weather for a few days, even after your flu symptoms have cleared up.

You can expect to feel sick for about 10 days in total, depending on how severe your infection is and how long it takes your body to recover from the illness.

Are flu complications common?

For the average person, developing complications from a flu infection isn’t common.

However, some groups of people are at a higher risk of developing complications. These complications can be serious and even be fatal if left untreated.

Possible complications triggered by the flu may include:

  • Pneumonia

  • Sinus and ear infections

  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)

  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)

  • Inflammation of the muscle tissue (myositis or rhabdomyolysis)

  • Multi-organ failure

  • Sepsis

The flu may also worsen existing medical conditions like asthma or chronic heart disease. If this starts to happen, it’s recommended to seek professional help immediately.

Key Point: What are the Signs of a Serious Infection?

It’s important to know what the signs of a serious flu infection are, especially for those in high-risk groups.

Common signs in children include:

  • Trouble breathing or rapid breathing
  • Blue face and lips
  • Chest pain
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Dehydration
  • Persistent fever and cough that seem to worsen

Common signs in adults include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent chest and abdominal pain
  • Persistent dizziness and inability to stand up
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Not urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Persistent fever or cough that seems to worsen

If you or a loved one exhibits any of these complications, be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

How Can I Be Sure That I Have the Flu?

There are many other respiratory illnesses that have similar symptoms to the flu. The best way to be 100% sure you have the flu is to take a flu test. If you show any flu-like symptoms, you will likely qualify for a flu test. Let's take a closer look at how this works.

How do flu tests work?

There are a number of different flu tests. The most common ones are called rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) and can be done at home or at a medical facility.

These tests work by detecting those parts of the influenza virus that are stimulating an immune response. RIDTs typically provide results within 15 minutes, although they’re not always accurate.

Other tests are called rapid molecular assays; they detect any genetic material of the virus present in the body. These tests also provide results quickly — within 20 minutes—and are typically more accurate than RIDTs.

During a flu test, you or a healthcare professional will collect a sample of nasal secretion with a cotton swab.

This sample will be sent to a lab for testing, and your results will be communicated to you once they’ve become available.

What Are the Treatment Options for the Flu?

While some people may recover from the flu by themselves, there are also medical and other remedies to help.

At-home remedies

Alongside other treatments, your doctor will likely recommend that you get enough rest and drink plenty of fluids. This gives your body the opportunity to fight the virus and recover.

Other home remedies to help alleviate flu-like symptoms include:

  • Drinking lemon and honey tea to soothe a sore throat

  • Taking hot showers to ease aches and pains

  • Gargling warm salt water to help with a sore throat

  • Sleeping with an extra pillow to promote sinus drainage

  • Placing a cold compress on your forehead to help lower your fever.

A woman in a black and white polka-dotted shirt leans back on the couch. Her eyes are closed as she holds a compress to her forehead and holds a thermometer in the other hand.

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medication

The FDA currently approves four antiviral medication options recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help treat the flu. These are:

  • Oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu)

  • Zanamivir (Relenza)

  • Peramivir (Rapivab)

  • Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)

These medications can help alleviate flu symptoms and enable your body to recover more quickly.

Since they are prescription medications and used for more severe cases of the flu, you’ll need to have an appointment with your doctor beforehand.

Your doctor may also recommend OTC options to help treat milder forms of infection as well as symptoms. These could include:

  • Pain and fever medication like Tylenol, Advil, or Naprosyn

  • Antihistamines like Benadryl or Claritin

  • Decongestants such as Sudafed

  • Throat lozenges

  • Products formulated specifically for the flu, like Nyquil

Vaccines

Seasonal flu vaccines — or flu shots — are administered annually and help protect against specific influenza viruses that have been found to cause flu and other illnesses.

Standard vaccines are available across the country in most pharmacies and medical facilities.

It’s important to get your shot before the arrival of ‘flu season’ — before winter and spring—when infections typically spike. This helps to ensure that you won’t get sick at all or only get a mild infection.

Vaccines are the best way to prevent a flu infection from occurring in the first place and also prevent the virus from spreading.

Key Point: Does the Flu Vaccine Make You Sick?

It’s common to experience a few side effects a day or two after you’ve received your shot. This is a normal response to the vaccine and indicates that the body is producing antibodies — which you need to fight viruses.

Common side effects may include:

  • Pain and tenderness at the site of injection
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches, body aches, and chills
  • Mild flu-like symptoms
  • Fever
  • Feeling weak and unwell
  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting

You cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine. The vaccine gives your body the tools it needs to fight off the flu should infection occur. Be sure to consult your doctor if any of these side effects become a concern.

When Should I See a Doctor About My Flu Infection?

If you suspect that you may have the flu particularly if you’re in a high-risk group for developing complications — you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider for a formal diagnosis and treatment.

Normally, mild infections don’t require medical attention and can be treated with OTC remedies.

However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Severe sore throat

  • Severe muscle pain

  • A wet cough that produces a lot of green or yellow mucus

You should also make an appointment to see your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within one week, or if new ones — like ear pain — appear.

Where Can I Learn More About the Flu?

If you are experiencing or are worried about your flu symptoms, you can speak to a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from right where you are. Head over to LifeMD to make a video appointment.

Dr. Asunta Moduthagam

Dr. Moduthagam has been a family medicine physician since 2011. She loves working with patients to help them reach an optimal state of well-being. She’s dedicated to thoughtful, compassionate care and is committed to being her patients’ best advocate.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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