One minute you're cruising through your Tuesday and the next, your throat is sore, your head and body aches, you can't get warm and feel sure you're spiking a fever. You can't think of anything but crawling into bed.
Up to one in five Americans will get influenza, or the flu, this winter. On average, 200,000 people will have severe enough symptoms they'll need to be hospitalized, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
During the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC estimates up to 42.9 million people got sick. Of those, 647,000 people were hospitalized, and 61,200 people died. In short, the flu can be very severe. Older people are more at risk of dying from the flu, which means it's even more imperative they take precautions to stay healthy.
Read on to learn more about the flu, how to prevent it or diagnose and treat it if you already have it. We've also included some remedies to help you heal as fast as possible.
What is the flu?
Influenza, or the flu as it's widely known, is a common viral respiratory infection that circulates most frequently in the winter and early spring. There are two common strains, influenza A and B.
While you can catch the flu year-round, flu season takes place from October or November through February, though it can occur as late as May.
Difference between cold and flu
Both the common cold and the flu are viral respiratory infections that spread quickly. When it comes to the flu vs cold, the symptoms can be similar — they both might leave you coughing and fighting a headache and chest discomfort. While a cold tends to come on gradually, the flu hits all at once with symptoms that are generally more severe. While you might have mild body aches with a cold, you'll likely have severe body aches with the flu. You'd rarely have a fever or chills with a cold, but it's common to have a fever that lasts three to four days and the chills if you have the flu. Sneezing, stuffy nose, and sore throat are all common cold symptoms, and you can sometimes have the same symptoms with the flu. If you have the flu, you feel more than just a bit rundown — it's likely you won't be able to leave the couch or your bed for a while.
Diagnosing the flu
Your doctor might use a rapid influenza diagnostic test to test for the influenza virus and rule out other similar infections, like strep throat. These tests work fast and can provide results in as quickly as 10 minutes, but they're not always accurate, despite the FDA passing stricter standards for the tests in 2018.
Another flu test is the rapid molecular assays, which detect the virus's genetic material. The results take a bit longer to come back, 15-20 minutes, but also are more accurate. Your doctor will use a swab to swipe the back of your throat or the inside of your nose. Even if your rapid test result is negative, you could still have the flu. If your symptoms appear to be from the flu and your test is negative, your doctor still might treat you for the flu based on your flu-like symptoms.
"It's important to come in for testing and treatment right away if you're worried you might have the flu," said Dr. Mark Montano, a provider at CareNow Urgent Care, which has seven locations around the Denver Metro and surrounding area.
Most of the time, the usual "get lots of rest and stay hydrated" flu treatment advice is your best bet when it comes to treating the flu. If you catch it early, in the first 48 hours, your doctor might prescribe an antiviral medication like Tamiflu or Relenza to help you recover quicker (or at least make the symptoms more mild).
"The antiviral medications we sometimes use to treat the flu only work if you start taking them in the first two days that you're sick, which is why we urge you to be seen if you think you have the flu," said Dr. Montano.
If adults or older children have temperatures higher than 102 F, wheezing, shortness of breath or drainage from their ear, or if your symptoms keep getting worse or won't go away, call your doctor. Be sure and call 911 right away if you or your loved one has trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, difficulty waking or fainting.
Remember, be sure to stay home and keep children who are sick home until their fever has been gone a full 24 hours to prevent the spread of the flu.
Flu home remedies
If you're looking for a magic flu medicine, you're out of luck. The virus needs to run its course but following these recommendations can help with flu relief:
Your body needs more sleep than usual when you're sick. Resting will help your immune system to fight the infection and help you recover faster.
It's vital to drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration. Water, juice and warm broth-based soups are all good options.
Calm your cough
Using a humidifier in your room at night while you sleep can help to ease your cough and congestion. Be sure to clean it daily. Likewise, sitting in a bathroom while a hot shower is running can help ease your symptoms.
Look for over the counter medications at your pharmacy that include an expectorant, which might be helpful to loosen the congestion. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is recommended for aches, though it's important to follow the recommended dosage. Remember, antibiotics won't do anything to help a viral infection, so don't expect your doctor to prescribe them.
Steps you can take to prevent the flu
We winterize our homes and car; we should do the same for our bodies to prepare for winter, which along with cooler temps and snow means cold and flu season. To prevent the dreaded flu this season, take the following precautions:
- Get your flu shot: Consider the flu shot your first line of defense. And if you're pregnant or older than 65, you are at higher risk of flu complications. That means you should make getting your flu shot a priority this fall. It takes about two weeks after the vaccination for antibodies that protect against the flu to develop; the CDC recommends people get vaccinated by the end of October.
- Wash your hands: Regularly washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs that carry the flu virus. The virus spreads from person to person via respiratory secretions. It can easily sweep through a large group of people you'd find in a classroom, dormitory, daycare facility, office or nursing home. Use soap and rub all surfaces of your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds – or about how long it takes you to sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice.
- Exercise: Moving your body helps to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (about 20 minutes a day) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, as recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Cover your mouth (and teach your children to do the same): Anytime you cough or sneeze, be sure to cover your mouth with your arm, if possible.
- Sleep at least 7 hours per night. Our immune systems function better when we're well-rested. Try to get at least 7 hours (8 is ideal) of sleep each night.
CareNow Urgent Care offers seven quality walk-in clinics in the Denver Metro and surrounding area, providing diagnosis and treatment for the flu as well as for strep throat, colds, and physical injuries like cuts or muscle sprains. CareNow is your family's one-stop healthcare solution for all of life's inconvenient illnesses and injuries. Visit CareNow Urgent Care for a listing of all seven locations and a convenient map to find out which one is closest to you.