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Flu Season

Learn how to stay healthy when flu season peaks.
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Last updated February 25, 2021

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What is flu season?

The flu is a respiratory viral infection caused by a group of very contagious influenza viruses. It’s that awful combination of fever, headache, muscle aches, cough, runny nose, and sore throat.

The peak of flu season is the winter—between December and February. But it can begin in the fall, as early as October, and last through May.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to take extra precautions to avoid the flu this year. It means you won’t have to stress over trying to figure out whether you have COVID or the flu (it is not always easy to tell the difference).

It also helps you stay away from doctor’s offices and hospitals, another way to lower your chance of catching COVID-19. And also reduces the burden on health care facilities during the pandemic.

How do you prevent the flu?

Pro Tip

The number one way to avoid complications of the flu is getting the vaccine. Hopefully, it will prevent you from getting the flu in the first place, but it has also been shown to decrease the severity of your illness if you do get the flu. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai

The best—and easiest—way to protect you and your family is to get the flu shot. The vaccine protects against the four to five strains of the influenza virus that experts predicted would be circulating that year.

Experts suggest getting the flu shot in the fall, before the flu becomes widespread. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it after that—you can get it any time during flu season. Since it takes about 2 weeks for antibodies to build up in your body, it’s ideal to be fully protected before flu activity is high in your region.

People ages 65 and older are offered a high-dose version. The special flu vaccine contains four times as much of the antigen, the part of the vaccine that helps your body fight flu viruses. Older people need the extra boost to encourage their body to have a stronger immune response to the virus, giving them better protection against the flu.

How do you catch the flu?

The flu is very contagious and can spread in several ways.

  • It mostly spreads through droplets from an infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking. The droplets can land on you or you can inhale them if you’re nearby. People with the flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away.
  • You can get the flu from droplets on a surface that you touch and then transmit by touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes, though this is a less common way to catch it.
  • People with the flu are contagious 1 day before symptoms appear and up to 5 to 7 days after symptoms start. Young children can spread it for a longer period of time.
  • The flu vaccine does not offer 100% protection, so it’s always important to practice other preventative measures such as avoiding people who are sick and frequent washing of hands with soap and water.

Can a mask prevent the flu?

A face covering or mask can reduce your risk of getting the flu. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be within 6 feet of someone with the flu, such as caring for a sick family member. It’s also helpful in preventing others from getting sick if you have the flu.

But you should not rely on masks to be your only form of prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend wearing a mask in place of other preventive measures like a flu shot and washing hands frequently.

Pro Tip

Do not take over-the-counter medicine with pseudoephedrine—for treating congestion—if you have uncontrolled or severe hypertension, closed angle glaucoma, urinary retention, first trimester pregnancy, or have taken MAO inhibitor within prior 2 weeks. —Dr. Manuelpillai

How long does the flu last?

The flu can last for a few days to nearly 2 weeks. Some people experience a secondary infection or other complications. Minor complications include a sinus or ear infection. Serious complications, which are more likely in older adults, include pneumonia.

Flu symptoms

Symptoms can vary from mild to serious.

Should I go to the doctor if I think I have the flu?

Dr. Rx

Unless you are high risk, you do not need a flu test. Whether you have the flu is not important. It is also safer (particularly during the COVID pandemic) to stay home and try to recover rather than possibly expose yourself and others by going to get a flu test. —Dr. Manuelpillai

Most people with the flu can recover at home. The fever should subside in a few days, and other symptoms should be better soon. It’s best to rest at home to avoid complications as well as to keep from getting other people sick.

If you are at risk for flu-related complications, call your doctor if you think you have caught the flu. Those at higher risk include people with asthma, diabetes, or heart disease; adults ages 65 and older; pregnant women; and children under the age of 5.

A doctor can test to see if you have the flu.

If you have the flu and are at high risk of complications, you may be able to take an antiviral drug (such as Tamiflu), which can reduce the severity of your symptoms and shorten your flu. It can also lower your risk of complications. These drugs work best when they are started within 2 days of getting sick. But starting them later can still help those at high risk.

If you’re not in a high risk group, antivirals are not recommended because they may have side effects like headaches, nausea, and diarrhea.

You can treat your symptoms with the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Rest and sleep.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications to reduce fever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • OTC pseudoephedrine can help reduce congestion.
  • OTC cough medicines like dextromethorphan-guaifenesin can reduce cough and mucus.

If you feel your symptoms are worsening or you may be developing signs or symptoms of a complication, it is important to see a doctor.

Share your story

Dr. Manuelpillai is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science Studies from Quinnipiac University (2002). She then went on to graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (2007) where she served on the Executive Student Council, as well as was the alternate delegate to the AMA/ISMS-MSS Governing Council and the student representative to the Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS) Education and Health Workforce committee. She completed an internship year with UCLA-Harbor Medical Center's Department of Internal Medicine followed by an emergency medicine residency program at Boston Medical Center (2011) while also serving as the resident representative to the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) committee on Student Health & Sports Medicine. She then started working at Saints Medical Center (later Lowell General Hospital/Saints Campus and Main Campus) in Lowell Massachusetts where she served as the Continuous Quality Improvement Director for the emergency medicine group, as well as was the representative for the emergency department on the Sepsis, Stroke and PCI Quality Assurance and Compliance Committees. She joined Buoy Health in 2019. She currently works in multiple emergency departments both in the community and academics, as well as previously worked in multiple urgent care centers. She believes this mix of experiences has given her a unique perspective on the care of acute illnesses.

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