Next time you're at work, take a quick scan of your office. Notice anyone missing? Flu season is in full swing, so there's a good chance that at least a few people are hacking up a lung at home. Hopefully, you've avoided becoming one of them so far, but it's important to know what early flu symptoms look like. The flu is known for coming on suddenly, but there are early signs if you know what to look for. That way, if you do catch the dreaded influenza, you'll be able to prepare yourself for what's to come. (Spoiler alert: There's a lot of coughing ahead.)
In the Northern Hemisphere, flu season begins around October and peaks somewhere between December and February. It's no joke — most people recover within two weeks, but some people, including the elderly and very young, are at a greater risk for complications like pneumonia. Every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), millions of people come down with the illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands ultimately pass away.
The severity of flu season depends on the year. So far, the current season is approaching moderately severe, like the 2014-15 season. While it's no pandemic, if you haven't gotten the flu shot yet, you may want to get that over with as soon as possible. The vaccine not only helps protect you against seasonal influenza, but it also reduces the spread of the virus. "When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community," the CDC explains.
Unfortunately, it's possible (albeit unlikely) to catch the flu even if you get vaccinated, which is why you should know what symptoms to look out for. Read on to find out what early signs suggest you might have the flu.
According to WebMD, a high fever (usually between 100 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit) tends to be one of the first symptoms of the flu. In fact, it's one of the defining signs. The good news is that it only lasts for a few days. The bad news is that it's accompanied by a bunch of other symptoms that can last much longer.
Healthline writes that fatigue is a sign that you could be coming down with the flu. The important thing here is to discern the difference between being tired and excessive exhaustion. Being tired is part of the winter blues; sudden, severe exhaustion may be a sign of the flu. While you're likely to perk up as the flu progresses, WebMD notes that general fatigue and weakness can last two to three weeks.
Even before the fever, a general body ache can be one of the first signs to appear. Headaches and chills are also common. "Wrapping yourself in a warm blanket can increase your body temperature and reduce chills," Healthline suggests. "If you have body aches, you can take over-the-counter pain medication."
"Nearly everyone has a runny nose and sore throat, but unlike ordinary colds, the flu also produces a hacking, dry cough," explains Harvard Men's Health Watch. This means that when you cough, it's not accompanied by phlegm or mucus.
All that coughing can lead to a sore throat, according to Healthline. "In the earliest stages of the flu, your throat may feel scratchy and irritated," the site reads. "You may also feel a strange sensation when you swallow food or drinks." As the flu progresses, your throat may feel worse before it gets better.
Vomiting... Or Other Problems
Gastrointestinal problems like vomiting or diarrhea are more common in children, but it is possible for adults to start the flu that way. (Certain strains, like H1N1, are more likely to cause these symptoms than others.) If you find yourself stuck in the bathroom for hours at a time, be sure to stay as hydrated as you're able.
Suddenly Feeling Off
Unlike the common cold, the flu comes on suddenly; once someone is infected, symptoms show up between one and four days later. If you felt fine yesterday, but today, you feel like a pile of flaming garbage, schedule an appointment to see a doctor before it gets worse.