Each year, we get tons of information about why, when, and where to get a flu shot but not all that much about how to recognize the first signs of flu. Read on for five ways to recognize the start of flu symptoms.
How Do Flu Symptoms Start?
It’s difficult to pinpoint when flu symptoms start because they are similar to a common cold or even an allergy.
Flu viruses usually take hold in the respiratory system — the nose and throat. Once they take hold, they send the immune system into overdrive with symptoms that might include sore or itchy throat, sneezing, runny nose, teary eyes, and even conjunctivitis.
Unfortunately, the flu comes on pretty quickly. There won’t be a few days of sniffles or a sore throat. Symptoms tend to pile on, one after the other, sometimes within hours:
- Sore throat
- Body aches/headache
Fever, aches, chills, and fatigue are less common in head colds. That said, other common head cold symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and even a stuffy nose are seen in flu as well. And of course, they are different viruses, so a person can be infected with both cold and flu viruses at the same time. If this happens, pneumonia becomes a high risk.
5 Early Flu Symptoms
Itchy or Sore Throat
Throat problems signal the start of just about any respiratory illness, with flu being among the most serious because it comes on quickly.
The nose and throat are particularly susceptible to viruses, which are spread in the air we breathe through the nose and often the mouth. Both the nose and throat offer warm, humid environments where cold and flu viruses thrive.
A persistent itchy or sore throat often indicates a virus has taken hold and your immune system is fighting it. At this point, it could either be caused by a cold or fly. Go ahead and help your immune system by getting a little extra rest and paying more attention to staying hydrated.
Hot beverages, especially teas, can be very soothing on a sore throat. Many people swear that teas with these herbal ingredients provide much-needed throat relief:
- Black Elderberry
- Lemon or lemon balm
- Olive leaf
You’ll find a lot of teas with these herbs packaged for cold and flu symptoms. Add a few drops of honey to counteract some of the more bitter flavors. In fact, even drinking hot water sweetened with honey can soothe a sore or itchy throat.
While your immune system is kicking into gear, boost it with Vitamins C and D. You can take them as supplements or eat more foods that have them. You’ll find Vitamin C in citrus fruits and vegetables, and many foods and juices are fortified with Vitamin D. You’ll also find it in oily fish, so go ahead and treat yourself to a bagel and lox (smoked salmon).
Dairy products are famous for containing Vitamin D and, contrary to what you may have heard, it’s OK to eat dairy when you have the flu or cold. In fact, there is evidence that adding more Vitamin D to your diet builds up your immune system to better prevent flu.
But for now, the important thing to remember is to stay hydrated to help your immune system flush out the flu virus.
If the sore or itchy throat persists and you develop body aches (including a headache), your body might be actively fighting the flu virus.
The flu is infamous for knocking people out with pain, particularly headaches and muscle aches. Head colds rarely include aches, so toss out any hope that your sore throat was a cold symptom. Go ahead and take some pain reliever and indulge yourself in a hot shower or bath and get some rest.
At this point, you probably don’t feel up to going to work or school. Our advice is to stay home and don’t share the joy of flu with friends or colleagues. The sooner you realize you might have the flu and take steps to contain it, the better off you’ll be (as well as others you normally see during the day).
Keep in mind that staying home not only gives you time to recover from the flu more quickly but protects you from further infection as well. Odds are, the flu is circulating everywhere. There’s no reason to put yourself at further risk with a setback, including secondary infections that can lead to pneumonia.
If flu is going around and you suddenly feel tired, take that as one of the first signs of flu. For many people, it comes on even before an itchy or sore throat.
This isn’t the same fatigue you get from an extensive workout or all-nighter to complete a work or school assignment. We’re talking about a really deep sense of tiredness, so deep you might not be able to get out of bed without a serious effort. You may sleep for several hours beyond your usual time. All this is good; it’s giving your body the rest it needs so that the immune system uses the available energy you have.
Don’t fight the fatigue. Get some rest! And while fatigue may not seem like a good reason to take a day off work or school, try to make sure you do take it a bit easier if possible.
- Eat more foods with Vitamins C and D; it’s very important to intake calories and nutrients to support your immune system
- Drink more fluids
- Go to bed earlier
- If possible, work from home and use the extra time in the morning to sleep in a bit
If you haven’t taken a sick day in ages, now is a good time to do it. You really won’t be achieving much at work if you’re feeling run-down. And if you’re in school, see if there is a class you can miss and ask one of those people who are always borrowing your notes for theirs!
Got a Fever? It’s Probably Flu
A fever with a sore throat is often a sign of flu. Colds rarely bring on fever and when they do they’re slight.
High, spiking fevers are a hallmark of flu. It’s not unusual for flu to bring a fever of 102° for up to a few days. Any fever that goes higher or that lasts more than three days should be carefully watched and reported to your doctor.
Keep in mind that a fever is a normal response to an aggressive virus like the flu. It means the immune system is active; by making the body hot, it’s creating an inhospitable environment for the virus. Avoid pain relievers with fever reducers. It’s often best to let the fever run out its course on its own.
Chills are Not Always Related to Fever
Many people get chills during the early stages of flu, with or without fever. Fever and chills don’t always go together and in many people, chills are one of the first signs of flu and can be taken as a sign that a fever could be setting in.
Although it’s tempting to bundle up against the chills, use light coverings. It’s easy to overheat your body when it’s fighting a virus. You don’t want to sweat excessively and lose fluids your body needs.
The Flu is a Serious Disease
We encourage our patients to get a flu shot. If you’ve ever had the flu, you understand that it’s a miserable illness and worth the time and incidental, temporary discomfort of a vaccine.
Moreover, the CDC finds that a flu shot typically lowers the likelihood of getting flu by 40 to 60%. That might not sound like a lot, but consider that the vaccine reduces ICU admissions by more than 80%.
Even during years when the flu vaccine doesn’t exactly match the mutations going around, it still provides a degree of protection by lessening the intensity of the illness. Instead of missing a week or more of work or school, an absence might be two or three days and fewer aches and pains.