When we think of fall, most of the time what comes to mind are happy, endearing things like the colors red, yellow and orange, falling leaves, pumpkin pie and, depending on where you are, the first signs of snow. But there’s something else, something less warm-and-fuzzy that also goes hand-in-hand with fall: the onset of flu season.
Indeed, while the influenza virus can infect people year-round, it typically begins ramping up its yearly offensive in November (in the northern hemisphere, at least), just when people are starting to head indoors to escape the cold. And while we might most closely associate the flu with being the premier sick-day excuse, make no mistake, it’s deadly, too: According to the CDC, between 12,000 and 61,000 people have died from the virus each year since 2010.
So, given that it is, in fact, something you really, really don’t want to get if you can avoid it (or get vaccinated against it), what are the signs that you have the flu, and how long does it last? Let’s take a look.
Signs You Might Have the Flu
Feeling under the weather? Hey, it happens. But how do you know that what you’ve been stricken with is the influenza virus, and not just a run-of-the-mill bad cold? Well, according to Dr. Christopher Moore, one of Forward’s physicians at their San Francisco clinic, if your symptoms include many, if not all of the following, you may be sick with the flu:
- Body aches
- Runny nose
- Shortness of breath
- Joint pain
- General malaise, (i.e., feeling like uncomfortable blob)
If those symptoms make you think that the flu likes to launch its attacks on your body from its homebase in your chest area, you’re not wrong. “In adults, the flu primarily will affect the upper respiratory system,” Moore says. “That said, in kids, that list of symptoms can expand to include vomiting and diarrhea.” Sorry, kiddos.
How the Flu is Different From COVID
Unfortunately, symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to the symptoms of the flu, so it can be difficult for people to determine which is which. That said, the CDC says that, although they do share most symptoms, people with the flu are most likely to experience moderate symptoms, while people with COVID either aren’t as symptomatic, or are extremely so. And, they don’t share all the same symptoms, Moore explains. “If I were to point to one symptom that folks sick with COVID often report that folks sick with the flu don’t get, it might be the loss of smell and taste,” he says.
Wait, I Thought Adults Can Get the ‘Stomach Flu’, Too?
Bad-ish news, weekend warriors hoping to use the “stomach flu” excuse in order to take a Friday sick day and get a headstart to the lake: The stomach flu isn’t actually, you know, the flu. “It’s kind of a misnomer,” Moore explains. “Because, if you’re feeling nauseous, or you’re having trouble keeping food down, or you have diarrhea, that’s not the influenza virus. What most people call the ‘stomach flu’ tends to be something like gastroenteritis, which is basically inflammation of the stomach.”
That said, as Moore lays out, gastroenteritis is definitely a thing. So if you’re feeling actually sick to your stomach, stay home. Because gastroenteritis is also often caused by a virus, one you can definitely shed if you share food or utensils or a water bottle. Don’t do that, your co-workers wouldn’t appreciate it.
Here’s How Long the Flu Can Last
Okay, so you’re sick with the actual flu. So how long can you expect to be sick? Moore says that the flu can last a few days, or as long as a few weeks. And under certain circumstances, for certain people, the flu can even have lasting effects long after recovery.
What kind of circumstances, and what kinds of people might suffer the effects of the flu for longer? High risk groups, Moore says, particularly people who suffer from conditions such as:
- Auto-immune diseases
Basically, if you’re sick with something else and then you get the flu, it’s bad news. “At Forward, we tend to be most concerned with people with pre-existing conditions in terms of the symptoms lasting longer because their immune system may not be able to manage the virus as quickly and as efficiently as people with a clean bill of health. Also, pregnant women are particularly at risk for both getting the flu in the first place, but also for being sick for longer periods of time.”
Whether you’re healthy as a bull or you’re not, no one likes getting the flu. But if you are one of the unlucky ones to catch the influenza virus, remember to drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest and perhaps most importantly, check in with your Forward care team — they’re available 24/7 to make sure you don’t have to fight the flu alone.