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. You can help keep yourself healthy with everyday habits like washing your hands, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and by getting your annual flu vaccine (either an injection or a nasal spray) from your doctor’s office, local pharmacy, or walk-in clinic.

Cold and flu season begins every fall and lasts through end of winter, peaking between December and February. Most people experience cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, fever, and fatigue for about seven days after symptoms first begin.

Flu season’s back

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

Seasonal flu symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Because the virus spreads every fall and winter, it’s important to determine if you have the flu, know what to do to recover, and recognize when to seek medical care.

What should I do if I think I have the flu?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best thing to do if you don’t feel well is to stay home and rest. 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. 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.

How long does the flu last?

Most people usually start to feel better within a week. If you get the flu after you’ve had the flu vaccine, you may start to feel better faster.

Is there a test to diagnose the seasonal flu?

Yes, there are several types of tests that can help diagnose the flu. Two types of tests, the rapid influenza test and the rapid molecular assay, provide results in 15-25 minutes. The rapid molecular assay is generally more accurate than the rapid influenza test. Your doctor may not need to use a flu test to diagnose you, instead relying on clinical expertise to diagnose you after an exam.

How do I know if I have the seasonal flu, a common cold, or COVID-19?

The flu, common cold, and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, but they have very similar symptoms. While flu symptoms usually come on much more suddenly than common cold symptoms, the only way to be sure is to see your doctor and get tested.

Can I have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Since the seasonal flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, the CDC says it’s possible — although very uncommon — to have both at the same time. This is called a coinfection. Even though it’s rare, people with a coinfection are at a higher risk of developing more serious symptoms that can land them in the hospital.

Will any treatments help me get better?

While the best course of treatment for most people 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.

How will I know that I’m getting better?

If you have a fever or body aches, you should start to feel relief from those symptoms around day 4 or 5. Other symptoms should improve in the following days.

Can I get even sicker while I have the flu?

Yes. It’s possible to develop severe symptoms, even if you think you’re in good health otherwise. Head to the hospital or seek medical attention if you have trouble breathing, a high fever, can’t stop vomiting, or become confused.

How will I know if I need to go to the hospital?

Head to the hospital or seek medical attention if you have trouble breathing, a high fever, can’t stop vomiting, or become confused.

Can I get the flu more than once during the same flu season?

Yes. Because there are several different variants of the flu, you can get the flu more than once in the same season.

Think you might have the flu?

Book an appointment with your AHN doctor. Call the office directly, or call (412) DOCTORS (412) 362-8677 and we’ll help you set it up. Or use AHN MyChart to make the appointment online.

Ways to prevent seasonal flu

It may seem unavoidable, but there are lots of ways you can help protect yourself from getting the flu and spreading it to others around you.

What can I do to avoid getting the flu?

You can take everyday actions to help stay healthy, but the most important thing you can do is get the flu vaccine from your doctor or a local pharmacy.

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

Should I get a flu shot even if I’m generally healthy?

Yes. The flu shot is for pretty much everyone. By getting yours, you’ll help prevent spreading the virus to others around you who may not be able to get the vaccine. Plus, if you do get the flu, the vaccine can reduce the length and severity of your illness.

Is it more important for certain people to get the shot than others?

Certain people are at higher risk of developing severe flu symptoms or complications, like young children, the elderly, women who are pregnant, or those with chronic health conditions like chronic lung disease, asthma, or heart disease. It’s particularly important for them to get a yearly flu vaccine.

When is the best time to get the flu shot?

The CDC says that September and October are ideal times to get the flu shot. It’s early enough that flu season isn’t in full swing, and you’ll still be protected during the later part of the flu season.

Where can I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are available at local pharmacies, urgent care centers, and clinics on a walk-in basis with no appointment needed. Some employers and community groups host vaccine clinics in the fall. Your AHN PCP also has the flu vaccine, but you’ll need to make an appointment for it ahead of time.

How much does a flu shot cost?

In most cases, the flu shot is free.

Do I have to get a shot to be vaccinated against the flu?

If you’re between the ages of 2 and 49 years old, you may be able to get a nasal spray vaccine instead of an injection. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to see which version is right for you. The CDC website has more information about the nasal spray flu vaccine.

Is it safe?

The flu vaccine has safely protected people from the flu for over 50 years. There are different flu shots approved for people of different ages and health levels. Even people with an egg allergy can get a flu shot. But like every treatment, the CDC says that some groups of people shouldn’t get the flu vaccine.

Can new moms or pregnant women get the flu shot?

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. They don’t recommend the nasal spray vaccine for expectant mothers.

Are there side effects from the flu shot?

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.

Can I get the flu from the vaccine?

No, you can’t get the flu from the flu shot.

How well does the flu shot work?

The CDC estimates that the vaccine can help reduce flu illnesses by up to 40% and 60% every year. While getting a shot isn’t a guarantee you’ll stay flu-free, it can reduce the duration and severity of your symptoms if you do get sick. 

The Flu and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 may spread during flu season, too. So it’s important to know how to protect yourself from both.

Does the flu shot protect against COVID-19?

No. The illnesses are caused by different viruses, so only the COVID-19 vaccine protects against the COVID-19 virus.

Can I get the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time?

Yes, the CDC says that it’s okay to get both together.

Where can I find more information about the COVID-19 vaccine?

View our Coronavirus resources section for more information about vaccines and boosters.

Get your flu vaccine now

There are convenient walk-in options all around you. Just head to your local pharmacy or urgent care. Check around at work, too, since your employer may sponsor flu vaccine clinics.

Book your appointment

Call (412) DOCTORS (412) 362-8677 to schedule your annual checkup with an AHN primary care physician. Be sure to mention that you want a flu or COVID-19 vaccine, too.

If you’re a current patient, you can log in to MyChart to schedule online for a flu shot or call your doctor's office directly.

Don’t have a MyChart account? Learn more about MyChart and register for your free MyChart account today.

Need a new primary care physician?

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