The Flu Might Not Last As Long As You Think

You likely don't need anyone to tell you that having the flu is not fun (unless you're someone who gets their flu shot each year, in which case, good for you!). The fever, the muscle aches, the cough—they're all pretty miserable symptoms that can knock you out for days

Unfortunately, "days" is a little vague when it comes to just how long you'll be out of commission if and when the flu strikes—you know, because life doesn't stop just because you're feeling under the weather. So how long exactly should you expect to be flu-like if you're hit with the virus? Health asked an expert what you can expect if you're bedridden at all this winter—and when you'll be able to get back to the daily grind. 

How long does the flu last?

The short answer: three to seven days, according to Vanessa Raabe, MD, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone. Flu symptoms—muscle aches, high fever, a cough—usually appear one to four days after a person is infected.

But even though you might be doing much better a week after becoming ill, it could take longer than that for all of your flu symptoms, such as a cough, to disappear. Dr. Raabe adds that you might take longer to heal if you develop a complication because of the flu. Moderate flu complications include sinus and ear infections, per the CDC. More serious complications include pneumonia, brain or heart inflammation, sepsis, and multi-organ failure.

So how long are you contagious?

“While you are most contagious during the first few days after symptoms appear, you can start spreading flu as early as the day before your symptoms appear,” says Dr. Raabe. (That’s right, you can spread the flu before you even know you have it, which is the millionth reason you should get a flu shot this year.)

Dr. Raabe says that most adults who are otherwise healthy will no longer be contagious after about a week of having the flu. “However, adults with chronic illnesses or problems with their immune system and young children who get the flu may be contagious for longer,” says Dr. Raabe. 

How long should you rest after having the flu?

While your body is battling the flu, you’ll likely be sleeping—a lot. But you shouldn’t necessarily jump right back into your normal routine if you go without coughing for a few hours.

Dr. Raabe says you should wait at least 24 hours after your fever goes away before exercising or going back to work. (This means without the help of fever-reducing medications like ibuprofen, BTW.) And even if your fever goes away for at least 24 hours, you shouldn’t necessarily get right back to the gym, if your symptoms aren’t manageable yet.

When you do get back into your fitness routine, try to take it easy at first, Dr. Raabe recommends. “Flu can cause muscle aches and fatigue that can last for a variable amount of time so it’s best to start with light workouts when you resume exercising and gradually increase back to your normal exercise routine based no your energy level,” she says.

A good way to avoid the annoying side effects of the flu, the best you can? Get a flu shot (does this sound like a broken record yet?). “Getting a flu shot can reduce your risk of getting the flu and although it’s not a guarantee you won’t get sick with flu, it reduces the chance of you getting a severe case,” says Dr. Raabe. In other words, it’s well worth the basically painless prick.

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