How Long Does the Flu Last?

Dear Dr. Manny, 

I’ve had a severe cold for a bit, and I’m starting to wonder if it might be the flu. How long does the flu  last? How long do you have to wait for symptoms to appear? Could I still get a flu shot if I only have a cold? I don’t want this to turn into the flu.

The flu is typically a short-term illness. The symptoms from the flu last anywhere from five to seven days. Much like colds, they lessen in severity as time goes on. You should feel much better after two days of the flu, and completely better after ten days. If you have a weak immunity, however, the flu might develop into something else. 

Those who are very young, very old, suffer from severe chronic conditions, or women who are pregnant can develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be deadly. It’s important to rest and drink lots of water and other fluids. 

Is it the Flu or Something More?

You may be able to sense the symptoms of a cold coming on, but flu symptoms hit all at once. Usually after a person catches the flu, the symptoms appear anywhere from 1-4 days onward. 

While a cold is usually respiratory in nature, a flu has other areas of focus as well. A fever is usually the best marker, followed by a cough, sore throat, a runny nose, aches and pains, headache, fatigue, and vomiting. 

There is no way to treat the flu, other than with antiviral medication that will alleviate some of the symptoms. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen also help bring the fever down. 

The best way to prevent the flu is with a flu shot. 

If you have a cold, or are otherwise sick, consider rescheduling your flu shot. It won’t hurt you if you are mildly sick, but it will if you have any more serious illness. Always check with your doctor first. It becomes harder to tell if you are having negative reactions to the vaccine if you already have the symptoms. 

By the way, negative reactions to a vaccine are normal. Some mild discomfort does not mean you have the flu from the flu shot, but rather that your body is re-adjusting. 

The flu shot may not protect you completely from the flu, but it will lower your chances of catching it. It is worth getting. And if you have the flu, get lots of rest and liquids, and let your body recover.