Flu Viruses Typically Vary Each Season
The flu hits every year without fail and causes many of us seasonal grief due to symptoms that seem to last forever. From October to March, your chances of contracting the flu go up, and flu season peaks from December to February. When flu season comes, do you know how long you’ll be out of commission? Many people find themselves asking, "how long does the flu last?" Read on to find out more about this common illness.
What is the Flu?
The flu is an extremely contagious respiratory virus caused by influenza A, B, or C. These viruses carry a variety of symptoms that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. Cases of flu viruses range from mild to severe. When you get a strain of the flu, your body builds up antibodies that attack the virus.
Unfortunately, flu viruses are constantly evolving so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to deal with the same flu virus more than once. The antibodies that were created for your last flu won’t work on a different strain, which means that some people contract the flu almost every year.
While you likely won’t experience all of the symptoms below, these are the most common signs that indicate you have the flu:
- Muscle or body aches and pains
- Dry cough
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
Causes of the Flu
The flu spreads from infected people to healthy people in ways you may not realize. It could be something as simple as person-to-person contact, such as a handshake, or person-to-object contact, like using a computer keyboard. Merely grazing something with the virus on it and then touching your face can spread the infection.
The flu can also spread through the air, up to as far as six feet away, and you can contract the virus by breathing in microscopic droplets suspended in midair. Many cases of the flu start and spread from infected people through droplets that are propelled by sneezing or coughing, or through exposure to saliva, such as sharing drinks and eating utensils, or kissing.
How Long Does the Flu Last?
The length of time it takes for the flu virus to leave your system really depends on the individual. Symptoms appear within one to four days of exposure to the virus, and will typically last five to seven days once they arrive (give or take).
Most folks feel better within one to two weeks, with some lingering symptoms such as fatigue and cough. In most healthy people, the immune system can resolve flu symptoms in a week or less, which is one more reason to live a healthier lifestyle.
If you’ve had the flu shot, your symptoms can be less severe or last a shorter amount of time than those who are not inoculated. There are also some differences in how long the flu lasts for children and adults.
How Long does the Flu Last in Children?
Kids tend to get the flu more often than adults and are able to spread the virus for a longer period of time than adults. This might be because they are less diligent about washing their hands, and spend more time in each other’s personal space at school or on the playground.
Very young children (under age 5, and especially babies) are at increased risk for complications from the flu, which may make symptoms more severe or last longer. Make sure you consult your doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has contracted the flu.
The contagious period can last longer for children and they can also be virus carriers for the flu for several weeks. After their fever and other flu symptoms go away, kids may still have a lingering cough or feel tired, which is normal, and their immune systems should be able to resolve these persistent symptoms without medication.
If you’re giving a child medication, it’s recommended that anyone under 18 should not be given Aspirin or salicylate-containing products as it may cause a rare complication called Reye’s syndrome.
How Long Does the Flu Last in Adults?
Most adults recover from the flu virus in three to five days, depending on their health and the severity of the flu strain. The flu can get better and then worse again throughout the day, so don’t assume you’re out of the woods if your symptoms start to ease.
Once your fever is gone on its own, without the need for fever-reducing medication, stay home for at least 24 more hours before heading back to work, or venturing out into public areas.
You may feel better after about a week, but that doesn’t mean you’re at 100 percent. Fatigue may be a lingering symptom while your body re-calibrates after fighting the virus, so don’t overexert yourself when you’re on the mend. Even if you have a quick recovery, you may still be able to infect others for up to seven days after becoming sick.
How to Treat the Flu While You’re Sick
In many cases, viral infections can be resolved in a short period of time without treatment. It’s important to take care of yourself and not try to push through your usual schedule. Stay home, get rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take medication if you need it. Here are some suggestions on what you can do if you’re stuck with the flu:
- Antibiotics cannot treat the flu, but they can make your symptoms easier to handle. Over the counter medication is available if your symptoms are getting the better of you. Ask somebody to go to the drug store for you to avoid spreading the flu. Pain relievers can help bring down your fever and reduce the aches you may be feeling. Three types of pain relievers that are beneficial are acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
- Depending on the severity of your infection, you doctor may also prescribe an antiviral medication to help treat the flu.
- Avoid contact with other people to keep the flu from spreading. This may mean you wear a face mask if you need to leave home (to seek medical care, for example).
- Cover your coughs and sneezes to decrease the risk of spreading the flu to others.
- Discard tissues immediately after use and don’t reuse old tissues or handkerchiefs.
- Hydration helps your kidneys eliminate waste and keep your body processes running normally, allowing your immune system to do its job and attack the virus. Hot liquids can help loosen mucus too, so drink your tea and eat your soup. An additional tip: add lemon juice to your water; it’s antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory.
- Use a humidifier to help with symptoms of congestion.
- Relieve your sore throat by gargling salt water.
How Long is the Flu Contagious?
You may be contagious and spread the virus before you’re even aware that you’re sick. You can spread the flu one day before your symptoms show up, and up to seven days after your symptoms appear, which is why you should do what you can to stay home and away from others. Since the virus is highly contagious, it’s important that you do your part not to spread it around.
How to Prevent the Flu After You’ve Had It
The best way to prevent the flu is to get an annual flu vaccine. This doesn’t mean you’re immune to getting the flu, but these vaccines can reduce the risk of contracting the flu by 40–60 percent. The flu vaccine can take up to two weeks to become fully effective, so there is a window of time where a person may catch the flu when they get the shot or even a little afterward.
Always wash your hands properly before eating and try to avoid touching your face, especially if your hands aren’t sanitized. Germs spread quickly, so always be mindful of constant hand-washing throughout flu season.
Cleaning and disinfecting objects or surfaces that a lot of people touch will also reduce the potential for the flu virus to spread. This includes things like counter tops, tablets, children’s toys, and anything else that several people handle throughout the day.
Smokers are more likely to contract the flu than non-smokers, so quitting smoking can also help reduce your likelihood of getting the flu.
Eat a healthy diet to help keep your body’s immune system in fighting shape. Healthy living can minimize the length of time you have the flu and may even prevent the flu from happening in the first place.
Extra sleep helps facilitate immune response and helps you recover faster, so make sure you’re getting as much sleep as possible. Sleep also helps if you’re recovering from the flu, so don’t underestimate the value of a proper night’s rest.
Supplements can be a good option if you’re not getting the required vitamins your body needs through food alone. Consult with your doctor to see if you should consider adding vitamins D3, K2, and C to your daily routine to make sure your immunity is at its best.
Avoid crowds. In peak flu season, try to avoid hubs where people congregate to limit your opportunity to catch the flu (for instance, public transit). If you are in highly concentrated areas of people, make sure you wash your hands, or at least carry around hand-sanitizer to fend off the virus.
When to Seek Medical Attention for the Flu
If you develop the symptoms below, be sure to go to the hospital to have a doctor assess you immediately:
- Blue/grey skin color
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or confusion
- Bloody mucus/spit
- High fever lasting more than three days
- Severe/persistent vomiting
Do what you can to avoid catching the flu by living a healthy lifestyle, getting enough sleep, and washing your hands. If you do contract a strain of the flu, it should only last about a week before you’re back to your normal self, so stay hydrated to support your immune system and boost your recovery time.