What Is the First Sign of the Flu?

Published July 15th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Updated Date: Jun 21st, 2022

It’s that time of year again, and before you know it, you find yourself calling into work because you woke up feeling sick.

The trouble is, you’re not exactly sure what it is that you’re sick with just based on the early signs, so you aren’t sure how to treat it.

Is it the common cold, and you’ll feel better in a few days, or is it the flu, and you’re only making the situation worse by not going to the doctor right away?

The early symptoms of the flu can often be similar to those of the common cold, so it is easy to get confused.

What is the first sign of the flu and what should you do if you think you’ve got it?

What Is the Flu?

Seasonal influenza, commonly called the flu, is an infectious disease that is caused by the influenza virus.

Flu primarily affects the function of the nose, throat, and lungs, and patients can experience symptoms that range from mild to severe; sometimes, flu can be fatal.

You get sick with the flu through tiny droplets that people project into the air when they cough, sneeze or talk.

Flu can spread if an infected person coughs or sneezes near you, sending the droplets into your mouth or nose, or if you touch a surface contaminated with flu droplets and then touch your own face.

An estimated eight percent of people in the U.S. get sick each flu season depending on the severity of the virus that year.

What Is the First Sign of the Flu?

It’s very common for people to confuse the flu with a minor cold early on because cold symptoms and flu symptoms start off very similar.

However, the major difference between cold and flu is that flu symptoms generally come on quicker and are more severe.

Early warning signs of the flu include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sore or tickle in your throat
  • Chills
  • Runny nose and stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Cough
  • Sudden fever, typically above 100 degrees Fahrenheit 

It should be noted that the symptoms of the flu will appear differently for everyone, and while a high fever is common early in the flu for many people, not everyone who has the flu will have a fever.

One early flu symptom is often extreme fatigue, which may appear before other symptoms.

Although fatigue is also associated with a cold, it is more severe with the flu. If you start to feel extreme fatigue, take a few days off of work and your other responsibilities to rest and allow your body to recover.

This may help you beat the flu more quickly. Body aches and chills are also associated with the flu but are not usually part of the common cold.

However, some people mistakenly blame body or muscle aches on a tough workout and don’t realize that it’s actually a sign of illness.

Even without a fever, people can experience chills. A dry cough or sore throat are also early symptoms of the flu, but productive coughs, chest pain, and difficulty breathing are rare.

What Should You Do If You Think You Have the Flu?

If you think you have the flu, there are several things you can do to help yourself get well and recover as quickly as possible. 

  • Rest: Stay home and rest early on and you are likely to recover from the flu more quickly. Some people do not take the illness seriously until it has fully set in with extreme tiredness, which can make recovery more challenging.
  • Wash your hands: Washing your hands frequently is a must when you have the flu in order to avoid the transfer of droplets to different surfaces and prevent the spread of the disease.
  • Eat healthily: Your body needs a boost to fuel your immune system, so make sure to eat foods that are healthy and full of vitamins and minerals. You may lose your appetite, but try to eat small meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. 
  • Cover coughing and sneezing: Instead of covering your mouth with your hands when you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth with your arm or a tissue. Flu is spread through droplets in the air and can also be spread when you cough into your hands and then contaminate another surface by touching it.
  • Stay hydrated: Your body will need lots of water, low-sugar electrolyte drinks, chicken broth, and herbal tea in order to stay hydrated to fight off the flu. Avoid drinks that can dehydrate you like coffee, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol.
  • Stay home: The flu is highly contagious, so stay home if at all possible. While missing work can be a challenge, your coworkers don’t want to get sick, and they’ll thank you for calling out. 

Recovering from the flu also comes with a list of things you should avoid if you want to get better as quickly as possible.

  • Don’t make contact: Do not make physical contact with other people while you’re sick. This means avoiding hugging, shaking hands, or sharing food or beverages.
  • Treat the symptoms. While there is no cure for the flu, treating the fevers, aches, and pains that come with it can be done by taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen. 
  • Avoid crowds: The flu is highly contagious and spreads through the air, so do everyone a favor and stay away from crowds while you’re sick.
  • Don’t do too much: Flu gets worse before it gets better, so getting enough rest in the early days is critical. If you push yourself too much at the beginning, you’re likely to lengthen your recovery time.
  • Don’t skip meals: You may lose your appetite with the flu, but try to eat small meals that do not upset your stomach. Your body needs fuel and nutrients to fight the virus, so look for healthy options.
  • Don’t smoke: Smoking is never a good idea, but it’s especially ill-advised when you have the flu. The flu affects your respiratory system, so smoking will exacerbate your symptoms and lengthen your recovery time. 

How Can I Avoid Getting the Flu?

The flu viruses come around every year at the same time, which means it’s possible to predict when you might get sick.

However, some people are at higher risk of catching the flu due to health conditions and are also more likely to experience flu complications.

So during flu season, consider taking the following precautions to avoid getting the flu:

  • Get a flu shot for the seasonal flu vaccine
  • Avoid crowds of people
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Stay away from people who are showing signs of illness