'Tis the season for the flu. If you've come down with the flu this fall, in addition to exhaustion, fever and congestion, you probably feel like you've been hit by a bus. What's that all about — why do you get achy when you have the flu? It's complicated.
"The short answer is, unfortunately, we don't know. There are a couple of proposed theories, but only minimal research to support them," Dr. Honore Lansen, a One Medical family practitioner in New York City, tells Bustle. "The most likely explanation seems to be that either actual particles of the flu virus settle into the affected muscles, or immune particles triggered by the infection cause mild muscle breakdown."
Laura Haynes, a researcher who specializes in immunology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, wrote on The Conversation that her research has found that "influenza infection leads to an increase in the expression of muscle-degrading genes and a decrease in expression of muscle-building genes in skeletal muscles in the legs." Though research is ongoing, and there is no definitive answer yet, doctors and researchers seem to agree that your achy muscles are the result of an immune-system response to the flu virus.
"The reason we suffer from aches and pains is because our bodies are responding to the illness by sending out white blood cells to fight off infection in greater quantity than our bodies are used to seeing," Dr. Mia Finkelston, a board-certified family physician who treats patients via telehealth app LiveHealth Online, tells Bustle. "White blood cells (or Leukocytes) protect the body against both infectious diseases and foreign invaders. While these cells are crucial to fighting off infection, because we are not used to having so many of them floating around in our bloodstream this temporary state can make us feel achy and lethargic."
If you are feeling especially achy, Dr. Finkelston recommends soaking in a warm bath, getting plenty of sleep, and drinking fluids to avoid dehydration. In addition, Dr. Lansen says that though unpleasant, the symptoms are temporary, and there are some other things you can do to ease the discomfort. "The best treatment option for this type of muscle pain is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) — ibuprofen or naproxen. Both are available over-the-counter and should be taken with food," she tells Bustle.
"If you can't take a NSAID medication, or you're still having some pain despite the medicine, acetaminophen may be helpful [but wait 8-to-12 hours after taking an NSAID]. If you're able to speak with your primary care physician within 48 hours of onset of symptoms, Tamiflu might also be an option for treatment."
Muscles aches are also one of the ways you can tell the difference between a cold and the flu. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, muscle aches are generally present with the flu, but are only sometimes present with a severe cold. If you also have a fever and the chills, the flu is likely responsible for your miserable condition.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the flu. However, you can reduce your chances of contracting it by getting the flu shot, washing your hands, and keeping your immune system strong during flu season. This means doing some of the same things you would do if you had the flu — getting enough sleep and staying hydrated.