It takes between 1 and 5 days to show symptoms of the flu after getting infected.
Throughout the United States, we are fully in flu season. Cases of influenza are currently increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and flu hospitalizations are up, too.
It’s important to do all you can to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting the flu this season. And one way to do that is to be aware of the risk you carry if you’re exposed to someone with the flu.
While you won’t always be infected after being exposed, if you do get infected, your symptoms will show up fast. How fast? Here’s what experts say:
Once you’re infected, you’ll likely be sick in a matter of days.
After being infected with the flu, it takes between 1 and 5 days for symptoms to occur, experts told HuffPost. Symptoms could be fever, chills, headache, cough, runny nose and more, said Dr. Marcel Curlin, an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine.
The exact timeline for when you get sick varies by person, but Curlin said it’s generally 2.5 days after exposure. Dr. Hilary Babcock, the chief quality officer at BJC Healthcare and an infectious disease doctor at Washington University in St. Louis, estimates it takes about 1 to 2 days.
When you do start feeling sick, it’ll likely hit you pretty fast.
“One of the distinguishing features of the flu compared to colds is that often it has a very sudden onset,” Babcock said.
While colds often start with a scratchy throat or a runny nose, your flu symptoms will hit you at once. For example, a patient could feel fine all morning and then suddenly feel crummy at 2 p.m., Babcock said. “That’s more likely to be the flu than to be like rhinovirus or some other cold virus.”
A flu shot offers protection from the virus.
Getting your flu vaccine is a good way to protect yourself. While it won’t keep you from getting exposed to the virus, it could blunt your symptoms and even prevent the infection altogether, Curlin said.
While it’s generally recommended to get your flu shot earlier in the fall — like September or October — you shouldn’t just skip out on the jab because it’s past that point.
“It is honestly never too late to get your flu shot until maybe March,” Babcock said, noting that while the flu season starts in the fall, it “usually lasts into February, March and occasionally tails off into April.”
Getting your flu shot now still provides you with months and months of protection as the virus swirls. Just keep in mind that it takes roughly two weeks for your immune system to build full protection after the shot, Babcock said.
There are also other practices that help prevent illness.
The holiday season means many folks will be in crowded places throughout the month, whether traveling or at holiday parties. And unfortunately crowded spaces are a breeding ground for viruses like the flu.
To protect yourself, Babcock suggested wearing a mask when you’re around large groups. She said you can even consider wearing one when you’re around folks who have been exposed to lots of other people — like a cousin after they get off a packed flight.
Frequent hand washing and the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good way to protect yourself from the flu and other respiratory illnesses, too.
“If I were in contact with someone in the community or elsewhere with a flu ... I would probably wear a mask all the time, and be very careful to wash my hands and not get too close to people,” Curlin said.
If you do get the flu, do what you can to help keep your loved ones healthy.
“If I developed symptoms, I would stay away from everybody,” Curlin said. Staying away from others can minimize the risk of spreading your infection.
For a lot of people, especially vaccinated folks, the flu usually doesn’t end up with hospitalization or severe illness, Babcock said. You can manage the flu at home by taking over-the-counter medication, drinking lots of fluids and resting.
People who are at risk of severe disease and hospitalization — like people who are over 65, immunocompromised, have heart disease, lung disease or cancer — should take particular care if they get the flu.
“They should probably check with their doctors as they might benefit from taking an antiviral medication to see if they can get better faster,” according to Babcock.