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Every year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population contracts the influenza virus, tens of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die from flu-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, it’s critically important to recognize the first symptoms of flu—and seek medical attention quickly. Waiting for the flu “to pass” can be dangerous, especially in children, older adults, or adults with respiratory or immune-compromised conditions.
3 Early Flu Symptoms
So what is the first sign of the flu? While there are various symptoms that plague anyone with flu, three in particular strike early in adults:
- Fatigue. A sudden feeling of overwhelming fatigue may appear before other symptoms. While fatigue is also a symptom of the common cold, it is usually more severe with the flu.
- Scratchy or sore throat. In the earliest stages of the flu, your throat may feel irritated, scratchy, or sore. You’ll notice this sensation more when trying to swallow foods or drinks.
- Muscle aches and joint pain. Body aches are also an early warning sign of the flu. Many flu sufferers describe the aches similar to the pain experienced following an intense workout.
Other Common Early Flu Symptoms
Aside from the three symptoms noted above, other early flu symptoms in both children and adults include:
- Eye pain and/or watery eyes
- Warm, flushed, or red skin
- Coughing or chest discomfort (chest has a “full” feeling)
- Stuffy nose and/or sneezing
Uncommon Flu Symptoms
Stomach woes usually aren’t part of a flu illness. But some people with flu symptoms do experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Such gastrointestinal issues are more common in children than adults (see sidebar).
Flu Symptoms in Children
The flu virus causes many of the same symptoms in children as it does in adults. However, children can have other flu symptoms that require immediate medical attention. Remember, children are more susceptible to suffer severe complications from flu. Seek emergency care immediately if your child has any of the following symptoms:
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not eating
- Crying with no tears
- Unresponsive; not waking up
- Having a fever over 101 degrees or having a fever with a rash
- Difficulty urinating (or, in babies, having diapers that are less wet)
Serious Symptoms of the Flu
Progressing beyond early and common flu symptoms, let’s consider those that should raise a red flag. If you’re suffering from the flu and experience any of the following serious symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath (could signal pneumonia or other flu complication)
- Pain or pressure in your chest or stomach
- Severe vomiting
- Dehydration symptoms. Dehydration is a dangerous complication of the flu. To avoid dehydration, drink water, herbal teas, or broth. Children can drink water or Pedialyte.
If you or a loved one have one or more flu symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Tamiflu is the preferred treatment for the flu; however, Tamiflu is effective only within the first 48 hours of contracting the influenza virus. If you wait to go to the doctor, Tamiflu may no longer be an option for you.
Also note that extreme weakness and fatigue will likely interfere with normal activities. Anyone with influenza should limit activity and allow the body to rest. It’s best to stay home, as venturing out to work or school causes the flu to spread to other people quickly. Plus, staying home and resting will strengthen your immune system, allowing your body to better fight the flu virus. (See also “How Long Does the Flu Last?“)
Aside from taking Tamiflu, the best way to mitigate the effects of flu symptoms is to take measures to decrease the symptoms. For example, you can take over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) to fight fever as well as body aches and pains. You also can gargle with a mixture of warm water, salt, and baking soda to alleviate sore throat, or try drinking warm herbal teas.
For coughing, stuffy nose, or sneezing, over-the-counter medications and natural remedies such as Mullein supplements are available. (See also our post Acute Bronchitis: 7 Hacks for Relieving a Chest Cold.)
Lastly, try utilizing one or more natural flu remedies listed here. You can also try a product called Boiron Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic remedy that has been found to help alleviate flu-like symptoms. Another product, Sambucol Black Elderberry Cold & Flu Relief, has been found beneficial in naturally relieving both cold and flu symptoms.
Remember, the flu is nothing to take lightly! If you or a loved one is suffering from influenza, take actions immediately to reduce the intensity and duration of your symptoms.
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This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.