Cold and flu season may be nastier than usual this year, experts say. Beyond getting your flu shot, it doesn’t hurt to brush up on the basics of influenza so you know what to expect if you do get sick this year.
One thought that might come up if you start to feel really crummy (and test negative for COVID): How long does the flu last?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. The flu can hit you like a ton of bricks, but the duration of this feeling largely depends on your personal health (and how you take care of yourself when you start to feel sick).
Before we jump into the specifics, let us remind you again: Please try to get your flu shot and your updated COVID booster by the end of October, both of which can help protect you and vulnerable people around you. “The more people who get the vaccine, the more the risk goes down in that community,” Dr. Vyas explains. “It’ll protect people.”
That said, if you do come down with the flu, you can expect to be out of commission for at least a few days. Here’s what you should know as we settle into the colder months.
How long does the flu last for most people?
If you’re under the age of 65 and generally healthy, you can probably expect the worst of your flu symptoms—which can include fever or chills, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, and heavy fatigue—to last between three to seven days, Dr. Vyas says. For adults who got their flu shot, it’ll likely take closer to three days for symptoms to start easing up; for unvaccinated people, it might take longer.
That said, it’s not uncommon to feel exhausted for a while or end up with a lingering cough, so it can take up to two weeks to really start feeling like yourself again, per Dr. Vyas. Symptoms may be stubborn for anyone but can be especially persistent for people who fall into a high-risk group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The flu may be more severe or last longer for children, older adults, pregnant people, and people who have underlying conditions that may impact their immunity or respiratory health, such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma, among others.
Can you make your flu symptoms go away faster?
Wouldn’t that be lovely? Sorry to break the bad news, but there’s no quick or easy way to recover from the flu. While antiviral drugs are available for people who face a higher risk of complications, like pneumonia, these medications don’t make sense for everyone to take, Dr. Vyas says. They also require a prescription, so you’ll want to talk to your doctor about whether this is an option for you.
If you’re otherwise generally healthy, you’ll basically have to wait on your body to do its job and recover on its own—so expect to ease into some downtime. You can actually drag out your symptoms by trying to push through the illness, Dr. Vyas says. “You need to take a rest to recover,” she explains.
This means getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of fluids (soup counts!), avoiding alcohol, and taking over-the-counter cold and flu meds if you’re feeling extra miserable, Dr. Vyas says. Also, this is the time to stay home and away from other people—especially people who are high-risk like a grandparent or baby cousin. “We generally don’t recommend people to go back to work until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours,” Dr. Vyas explains.
We get it: Nobody wants to be stuck in bed for days—but that’s usually the best-case scenario if you catch this bug. So, to keep you and your loved ones safe, make sure you’re washing your hands frequently (and keeping unwashed hands away from your face); disinfect high-touch surfaces in your home often; cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze; consider wearing a face mask in crowded public spaces; and google “flu shot near me” to schedule your appointment if you haven’t already.
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