The flu, also known as the influenza virus is a respiratory illness that is highly contagious. Specifically the flu virus infects the lungs, throat and nose causing an overall feeling of illness. Presenting mostly from the months of December through March – known as flu season – the flu can cause mild to severe sickness and in some instances, death.
Learning how to identify and treat flu symptoms can minimize your time in bed eating hot soup.
Is It A Cold Or The Flu?
Although the symptoms of the flu and the common cold are quite similar, the causes are quite different. Recognizing the different between symptoms of flu compared to the common cold will help you treat your illness more effectively. Many of the symptoms do overlap however there are a few key symptoms that are easily identifiable as flu.
While there are more than two hundred different viruses that can lead you to a cold, head cold or sinus cold, there are just two viruses that can cause the flu. The virus we call ‘seasonal flu’ can be caused by two distinct viruses known as influenza A or influenza B.
Symptoms Of Flu
While it is true that normal flu symptoms affect anyone with either of the influenza viruses, they can present differently in adults than in children. Once the symptoms have been identified it will be easier to figure out the best method of treatment.
The most common symptoms of the flu include fever of 100° to 103° Fahrenheit along with chills, fatigue and muscle soreness. These are the flu symptoms that truly distinguish this virus from a common cold. These are some of the most prevalent symptoms you will experience if you are sick with the flu. Not everyone exhibiting flu symptoms will present with the same symptoms, particularly fever.
Traditionally these symptoms may also include nausea and vomiting, which most of us consider stomach flu symptoms, however these symptoms in adults are part of a far different illness called gastroenteritis.
The respiratory flu symptoms are why it is so difficult to distinguish between the flu and a cold. Since the flu virus is a respiratory virus you will likely experience coughing and a sore throat, sometimes accompanied by a stuffy nose or runny nose. Headaches are also a common flu symptom, but it is important to understand that not all flu sufferers will experience headaches.
Symptoms in Children:
Because of the way flu symptoms in children are presented many of us incorrectly assume it is some type of stomach bug, but that is hardly the case. In addition to the normal flu symptoms, children often experience vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. The flu virus often hits children much harder than adults even though the symptoms are virtually identical.
Children presented with symptoms of the flu will experience:
- A fever over 100° F up to 104° Fahrenheit.
- Extreme fatigue and lack of energy
- Sore throat
- Chills and shakes
- Dry cough with some hacking
- Stomach pain and vomiting
These symptoms will be the worse for children during the first few days of the onset of the flu.
Symptoms in Infants and Toddlers:
Identifying flu symptoms in infants and toddlers can be very difficult because they can’t vocalize what they are feeling. This is why it is so important to monitor small children closely for symptoms.
Common symptoms of the flu for infants and children include a fever of at least 102° Fahrenheit accompanied by discomfort and pain. A fidgety infant or crying toddler may be due to discomfort or pain. A baby suffering from the flu will also present as very lethargic and irritable so look for a child that cannot be comforted – if the other symptoms present as well.
Finally two symptoms that will let you know your child as the flu virus are dehydration and bloody diarrhea. For dehydration look for signs of less urine output than normal and a lower fluid intake than is normal. If these last two symptoms are present see your doctor for an immediate flu treatment.
How Long Does The Flu Last?
In most people the flu virus lasts anywhere from one to two weeks from the time the first symptoms are exhibited. In otherwise healthy adults who are not in the at risk groups, they will recover from the flu in no more than two weeks with effective treatment.
Some adults and children however, can develop serious complications from flu symptoms. Although healthy children and adults can experience medical complications of flu, there are certain populations more at risk than others for developing serious illnesses stemming from flu symptoms. The groups most at risk for a prolonged illness stemming from the flu include:
- Children under 5 years old, but particularly those less than 2 years.
- Pregnant women, especially those with other health complications
- Seniors over the age of 65 years.
- Those with other medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, liver or kidney disorder, AIDS, cancer and those who are morbidly obese, according to the CDC.
How Long Is The Flu Contagious?
The main reason flu is so highly contagious is because of the way in which the virus spreads. Because you can catch the flu from the droplets released during coughing and sneezing, you may not experience any flu symptoms during the first few days when you are most contagious.
For adults the flu is contagious as early as one day prior to presenting with flu symptoms and as late as 7 days after you start feeling sick. This means that in healthy adults the flu is contagious for approximately 10 days.
In children the virus is contagious during the first 4 days after the virus has entered the child’s system—whether or not any symptoms have been exhibited. However children can also be contagious throughout the duration of their illness, which may be why the flu can be so dangerous in small children and babies.
Good and regular hygiene is an essential part of any flu treatment. Particularly during flu season you should make sure you keep your hands clean to avoid re-infecting yourself with the virus. However it is equally important that you treat flu symptoms to alleviate pain, congestion and fever.
Since dehydration is a real risk for flu sufferers you should increase your normal liquid intake. Because of sweating, possible vomiting and diarrhea you should drink more than you do when you feel healthy.
Warm showers and hot compresses are also part of any flu treatment at home because it will relieve muscle and head pain along with congestion. Pain relief pills can also be used to ease the ache in your muscles and reduce your fever.
Because there is no actual ‘cure’ for the flu the best you can do are these at home treatments that will help alleviate the symptoms.
If you notice that your symptoms are getting worse you should get immediate medical attention in the emergency room. If your breathing becomes irregular or your feel dehydrated despite an increase in fluid intake, your symptoms have progressed. Other signs your symptoms may be worsening include:
- Grey or bluish skin
- Increased lethargy & non-responsive to verbal prompts
- Inability to stay awake
- Fever persisting longer than 3 days
If you fall into one of the high risk flu categories (above) your first flu treatment line of defense should be a flu vaccination. Although the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months should receive the vaccine, it is more important for high risk groups to get it early on. It is recommended that you get vaccinated every year prior to the start of flu season.
Good and regular hygiene is an essential part of flu prevention. Particularly during flu season you should be careful to avoid coming into contact with the virus. However due to how contagious the flu is you should avoid coming into close contact with those who are sick.
Preventing the spread of flu requires good hygiene and good health habits such as washing your hands often with soap and warm water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This also means you should avoid touching your face, mouth, eyes and nose with dirty hands. Doorknobs, elevator buttons and handrails are covered in germs, which can easily pass illness.
During flu season you want to make sure you cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze to prevent passing along the virus to others, and stay home for at least 48 hours if you are presenting with flu symptoms.
Finally leading a healthy lifestyle is a great way to prevent the flu. Drinking enough water each day and eating a healthy diet with lots of nutrients can help stave off illnesses and minimize them when you do get sick. Regular sleep habits and physical activity can also help you stay healthier than your peers when flu season starts.