Seasonal Flu: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

The seasonal flu is a respiratory infection of the nose, throat, and sometimes lungs, caused by a virus. It’s commonly spread by talking, sneezing, and coughing. While most flu cases only cause mild to moderate symptoms, older people, young children, and those with other health concerns are at a higher risk of experiencing severe flu symptoms — and even needing to be hospitalized.

Our cold and flu season begins in the fall and lasts through the end of winter. The flu typically “peaks” or has the highest rate of infections, hospitalizations, and even deaths between December and February. By taking some very simple steps, you can help protect yourself from getting the flu and spreading it to those you love.

What causes the seasonal flu

Like other viruses, what we call the flu has several variants. The most common variants you may hear about in the news are Type A variants (H1N1 and H3N2) and Type B variants (Victoria lineage and Yamagata lineage). Every winter, each of these variants are part of a seasonal epidemic of flu during the winter months. But no matter the variant that is leading the flu outbreak each year, the symptoms are the same.

Flu season’s back

Time to get your flu shot. It’s the best way to protect yourself.

Seasonal flu symptoms and when to call the doctor

People with the flu often have fever or chills, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, body aches, and a headache. Like other illnesses, the flu can cause you to be tired. Vomiting or diarrhea is more common in children, but some adults will have those symptoms, too.

People are often unsure whether they have the flu or a cold. While symptoms are somewhat similar, flu symptoms typically come on suddenly. Body aches are usually a telltale sign that you have the flu, too.

While most people will start to feel better in a week, it’s possible to develop complications and get even sicker. People with existing medical problems like asthma or chronic heart disease may see those conditions worsen. Others might develop sinus or ear infections or pneumonia. And some can even have serious or life-threatening complications.

Bottom line, if you’re at risk of developing severe flu complications, have other chronic health conditions, or if your flu symptoms seem to be getting worse rather than better, contact your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can help alleviate your symptoms and avoid complications.

What to do if you get the flu

If you don’t feel well, stay home. To prevent spreading germs, avoid being in close contact with others, wash your hands often, and clean anything you touch. Most people with the flu will only experience mild symptoms and may not need medical care.

But those who are pregnant, 65 or older or under 5, or living with a chronic health issue should call their doctor when symptoms develop. Plus, you should call your doctor if you feel worse than you think you should or if you’re worried about how sick you are. If you want to talk with a doctor or schedule an appointment, we’ve got several options for you.

Your doctor may have you take a test to help diagnose the flu. Two types of tests, the rapid influenza test and the rapid molecular assay test, provide results in 15-25 minutes. Your doctor may also rely on clinical expertise to diagnose you instead of using a test. Either way, the faster you’re diagnosed, the more effective your treatment will be.

Treatment options

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you have the flu, the best thing for most people to do is to stay home and rest. If you are at a higher risk to develop more severe symptoms (like those who are pregnant, 65 or older, or living with a chronic health issue), your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine to help reduce the length and severity of your illness. These treatments are more effective earlier on in the illness, so it’s important to talk with your doctor as soon as you start feeling ill.

Either way, to avoid spreading the virus you should stay home and avoid contact with others until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone on its own. You can use an over-the counter fever-reducing medicine such as acetaminophen to help keep you comfortable.

Head to the closest emergency room or get medical help if you have trouble breathing, a high fever, can’t stop vomiting, or become confused at any point during your illness.

Take action to ward off the flu

Make sure to follow these tips to help you and your loved ones stay healthy during this year’s cold and flu season.

flu shot syringe

Get your flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine

 ruler showing 6 feet to maintain proper social distancing

Practice social distancing

 bar soap for washing hands to prevent flu and coronavirus

Wash your hands

A person’s hand

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

cute bunny slippers

Stay home when you’re sick

face mask to prevent flu and coronavirus

Wear a mask in crowded places

Who should get a flu vaccine?

The CDC recommends that just about everyone 6 months old and older should get a yearly flu vaccine. While there are different flu vaccines made specifically for people with different health concerns, you should check with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re not sure whether you should get the flu vaccine.

The flu vaccine and pregnancy

Again, according to the CDC, pregnant women should get a flu vaccine by injection (a shot) during any trimester of their pregnancy to help protect both mom and baby. The nasal spray vaccine is not recommended for expectant mothers.

Is a flu shot the only way to get vaccinated?

The seasonal flu vaccine can be given by injection (shot) or nasal spray. The nasal spray version isn’t for everyone though, so check with your doctor or pharmacist to see what’s best for you.

Flu vaccine side effects and what to do

Some people may experience mild side effects. The most common ones are soreness, redness, and/or swelling where the shot was given, low-grade fever, headache, nausea, muscle aches, and fatigue. Just like other injections, getting the flu shot can occasionally cause fainting. Reduce any swelling where you got the shot by using ice for the first few days, then switch to warm compresses after that. Using an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help relieve any other pain or discomfort.

How to get your flu vaccine

The good news is that most people can get their flu vaccine free of charge. The CDC says the best time to get your vaccine is during September and October, so you’re protected before the flu starts to spread. If you get it too early, your shot may not be as effective during the later part of the flu season, when you need it most.

You can walk into most local pharmacies or health clinics. And keep an eye out for walk-in vaccine drives sponsored by your employer or local community groups. 

You can also can log in to your MyChart account to book a flu shot appointment at your AHN primary care physician’s (PCP’s) office. 

Have more questions about the seasonal flu and flu vaccine?

See our Flu and Flu Shot FAQs for more information about the flu virus, the flu vaccine, and staying healthy during the cold and flu season.

And just so we’re clear, getting a flu vaccine does not protect you against Coronavirus (COVID-19) or any other viral infection. For protection against serious illness this cold and flu season, you should be vaccinated against both the seasonal flu and COVID-19.

Of course, talk with your doctor if you have more questions or concerns about your risk for getting the flu or getting the flu vaccine.

Make an appointment

Call (412) DOCTORS (412) 362-8677 to book your yearly checkup with your AHN primary care physician. While you’re there, you can ask for your flu shot and/or COVID-19 vaccine, if you need either.

Call your doctor’s office directly to schedule a vaccine-only appointment.

Need a new primary care physician?

Use our Find Care tool to find the right doctor near you and make an appointment online.