How Long Does the Flu Last? Here are the Stages of the Flu

Posted by Seraine Page on Mon, Sep, 20, 2021

Flu Stages InfographicThere’s no getting around it: the flu is no fun.

No matter which stage of the flu you’re in, feeling better ASAP is a priority. That takes rest and time, of course.

When that first day of flu illness hits, it’s normal to wonder: how long is this going to last?

This post will provide details on daily symptoms, COVID vs. flu, and a timeline of what to expect as this common illness progresses.

Below, get a day-by-day timeline of how long you’ll feel crummy and tips for a faster recovery.

How Long Does the Flu Last?

So, how long does influenza actually last? Some people may answer with, “too long.”  

While it may feel like an eternity when you’re sick, in reality, it’s between three to seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re generally healthy, an uncomplicated case of the flu is short-lived, but a cough and weakness can last up to two weeks.

Stages of the Flu

Unfortunately, in most cases, you have to just ride out the flu. Even a day before any of your symptoms show, you could be carrying — and spreading — the flu virus. That’s why it spreads so rapidly during flu season, which runs from October to May here in the United States.

Here’s a breakdown of the stages of the flu in an uncomplicated case:

Flu Day 0

This is when some people are actually contagious, yet feel fine. You can be out and about doing your normal activities without even knowing you’re sick. You most likely contracted it from someone within the last 48 hours.

Days 1-3

Suddenly, you may feel ill. The flu is unlike a cold, where you slowly start to feel sick.

Symptoms that may appear:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle pain

During the first day of illness, you may feel fine while carrying on your normal activities to quickly feeling exhausted and running a fever. High fevers that come on quickly are more indicative of flu than a cold.

Day 4

You may notice a dip in fever and less muscle achiness. A cough and sore throat are normal at this point. Extreme tiredness with some chest discomfort may also make you want to stay in bed and rest all day.

Day 5

Things should be looking up. If a fever lingers or you’re feeling a lot worse, call your doc. A secondary infection may have popped up — like bronchitis — which will require antibiotics.

Day 6 and Beyond

At this point, your symptoms should be leveling off. You should be feeling like you’re on the mend. Lingering symptoms like a cough and tiredness may stick around for upward of two weeks.

Every person experiences illness differently. Some people may just have chest discomfort and a cough. Others may have a stuffy nose, sweating, chills, nausea, and more. Staying hydrated and resting will help reduce symptoms.

Potential Complications

The flu sometimes comes with complications like bronchitis or pneumonia. These issues can lead to long periods of hospitalization and even death if left untreated. Influenza can lead to secondary infections that can cause issues like dehydration, acute lung injury, septic shock, respiratory failure, and multi-organ failure. 

Those who are at higher risk for the flu potentially turning deadly include:  

  • Pregnant women
  • People over the age of 65
  • Kids under five years old
  • Individuals with chronic health issues

Starting in September, you can get your flu shot. Because the flu strain changes each year, it’s recommended you get a new shot to have immunity against the current season’s flu. While it’s never a 100% guarantee you won’t get the flu, it does reduce symptoms greatly and offers high levels of protection.

Related: Here’s How to Protect Your Remote Employees This Flu Season

COVID-19 vs. the Flu

As we head into flu season, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between COVID and the flu. Both spread differently and have different severity levels, depending on the individual and their health issues.Experts have found that COVID-19 is more contagious and therefore spreads more quickly than the flu, as has been seen with the Delta variant. It can take longer to experience COVID-19 symptoms than it might if you had the flu.

Other differences between the two:

  • COVID shows up two to 14 days after exposure
  • COVID is often accompanied by loss of smell and taste
  • Flu symptoms show up one to 4 days after exposure
  • The flu can be treated with antiviral drugs

Like the flu, the same individuals are at a higher risk of complications: pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. The severity of both conditions can be reduced by getting the appropriate vaccine.

Related: 10 Flu Shot Facts to Share With Employees Before Flu Season Hits

Flu Recovery Tips

Options for flu treatment and recovery vary. Depending on how you’re feeling and your past experience with the flu, you have some options.

Here are some treatment and recovery options to consider:

  • Rest - First and foremost, staying at home, away from others, and resting is one of the most important flu recovery tips. You need all your energy focused on getting better. That may mean ordering groceries or take-out, getting a friend to run by the pharmacy for you, or even canceling long-standing events on your calendar.
  • Treat with an antiviral med - If you test positive for the flu, you may have an option for antiviral drug treatment. Popular options like Tamiflu are known to shorten the length of the flu by up to two days. It can also reduce serious flu complications, too. These antiviral drug options can be particularly helpful for those who may have a serious underlying health concern. Remember, antibiotics won’t help the flu.
  • Stay hydrated - Drinking plenty of fluids is key to thinning mucus and feeling better, faster. Being dehydrated can cause headaches and further body aches. Water, tea, and broths are great for hydration. An electrolyte drink can help if you’ve been vomiting.
  • Wash your hands - If you live with others, keep the infection from spreading by staying in one room. Washing your hands frequently and after blowing your nose or touching your face can prevent the infection from spreading to others.
  • Use a humidifier - If you’re congested and having a hard time sleeping, a humidifier is a great way to loosen mucus and help you breathe easier. Be sure to change the water daily to avoid mold from growing inside the container. Nasal strips may also make you feel more comfortable if you’re congested.

If you can schedule a virtual health visit with your doc within 48 hours of symptoms arriving, you may be able to get an antiviral prescribed. Skip waiting for a doc’s appointment and get to the ER if you can’t urinate, intense dizziness doesn’t stop, breathing becomes labored, or your chronic medical conditions get worse.

Need some advice to kick the flu even faster? Check out our post on The Best Home Remedies for Flu and Cough Worth Trying!

Prepare your office for flu season

Topics: Workplace Flu Shots


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