Early Flu Symptoms: What to Do When You Have the Flu

What are the first signs of the flu? Is there anything you can do to get well sooner?

early flu symptoms

Early flu symptoms often involve fatigue, muscle ache, and/or scratchy and sore throat.

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Influenza virus – the flu – attacks about eight percent of Americans every year. Flu symptoms range from mild to severe, and in a few cases, flu can be life threatening. Mild flu attacks your nose and throat. More serious flu attacks your lungs and breathing tubes. The best way to protect yourself is with a flu shot, which is strongly recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months. Unlike COVID, children are more than twice as likely to get the flu than adults over age 65. [1]

Are There Early Flu Warnings?

Unfortunately, there are no early warning signs of the flu. Unlike other infections like a cold or COVID, flu symptoms strike quickly and you usually get them all at the same time. Within about two days of being exposed to the flu, you may get any or all of these symptoms: [1,2]

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fatigue

Vomiting and diarrhea are common first symptoms in children but less common in adults. Serious flu symptoms may follow the early symptoms. Later and more serious flu symptoms may include difficulty breathing, chest or abdominal pain, dizziness or confusion, seizure, and severe weakness. [1,2]

You may be at risk for more severe flu if you: [1,2]

  • Are under age 5 or over age 65
  • Live in a long-term care facility
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a long-term illness, like asthma, COPD, diabetes, or heart disease
  • Have a weak immune system
  • Are very overweight

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)

What to Do When You Have the Flu

Unless you are in a high-risk group or you have severe symptoms, you don’t have to do anything but stay home and rest. Although there are antiviral medications that can shorten the flu by a day or two and may keep flu from getting worse, doctors only recommend these for people at high risk or with severe symptoms. In those cases, call your doctor right away. Antivirals work best if they are given in the first two days after symptoms start. [1]

For the rest of us, there are no shortcuts. Flu has to run its course. The best treatment is: [1,2]

  • Rest at home.
  • Avoid contact with other people until you have been fever-free for 24 hours, usually a few days.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain and fever medication, but avoid aspirin in children and teens. Aspirin can lead to a dangerous reaction called Reye’s syndrome.

For most people flu symptoms start suddenly and although they may make you feel more miserable than a cold, flu will go away in one to two weeks. Along with your flu shot, you can reduce your risk of the flu by washing your hands frequently and social distancing during flu season. [1,2]

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SOURCES

  1. CDC, Influenza (Flu)
  2. Mayo Clinic, Influenza (flu)
  3. Cleveland Clinic

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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

View all posts by Chris Iliades, MD

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