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October 4, 2022 • read
Flu season in Canada: how to protect yourself
If you have the flu, you know the phrase “just the flu” doesn’t accurately describe it. While it’s technically an upper respiratory virus, having the flu feels more like all-body misery. But while the virus is hard to avoid, being in agony doesn’t have to be inevitable. Here’s everything you need to know about the flu, including how to shorten the intensity of your illness.
When does flu season start?
Flu season rolls in with the cold in November and lasts until the spring weather makes its first appearance in March or April. Cases don’t stay steady this whole time, however. Instead, they rise and fall depending on a number of factors, typically peaking between December and February. While less common, it’s still possible to contract the virus outside of flu season, even in the summer.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
It’s easy to confuse the flu with a bad cold since both are viral infections of the respiratory tract, but symptoms of the influenza virus tend to come on much more suddenly. As well, its symptoms are more severe than a cold. The classic symptoms of the flu are:
- Body aches
Some people also have cold symptoms like a cough, sore throat, and runny nose, but these don’t show up in everyone.
If you think you’ve come down with a case of the flu, Maple can help. Maple is a telehealth platform that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors from your phone, tablet, or computer. With Maple, you can speak to a doctor about your health concerns within minutes.
How long does the flu last?
When you have the virus it can seem like it will last forever. In reality though, most people begin to recover from the flu within five days. These are the different stages of flu infection.
Stage one — day 0
Because you’re already contagious for about 24 hours before your first symptoms, the first phase of flu infection begins before you even know you have it. You’ll feel fine during this stage despite being able to spread the infection easily to others.
Stage two — day 1
Stage two of your flu infection begins on the first day of your symptoms. Sudden symptom onset is a key indicator of the virus, and many report starting their day normally only to have their symptoms crop up suddenly later on.
Stage three — days 2-3
Stage three of the virus, encompassing day two and three of symptoms, is likely to be your most uncomfortable. If you’re experiencing fever, it will typically peak at this point. Aches and any other symptoms will also be at their worst.
Stage four — days 4-5
Once you’ve reached stage four, you’ve crossed over into recovery territory. While you’ll likely still feel unwell, your symptoms, especially fever and body aches, will start to improve at this point. Nighttime usually brings a resurgence in symptoms, however, so don’t head back to work or school just yet.
Stage five — day 6+
By stage five, beginning about the sixth day of your infection, your symptoms should be solidly in the rearview mirror. However, you may be weak and continue to feel tired for a few days after this point. Certain symptoms like coughing and nasal congestion can linger for longer as well.
Six tips to protect yourself from the flu
Unless you’re a hermit, avoiding the flu completely is almost impossible. Nevertheless, there are a number of things you can do to help protect yourself. Here’s how:
- Get your flu shot — even if this year’s shot doesn’t fully protect you from this year’s variants, evidence shows getting your seasonal flu shot every year helps your immune system to better contend with the virus. You’ll want to book a flu shot sooner rather than later though as the flu shot needs about two weeks to take effect.
- Wash your hands — flu is spread by droplets and it’s possible to pick it up almost anywhere. Common surfaces like subway poles or door handles can be especially germy. Avoid touching your face — especially your eyes, mouth, or nose after touching any of these. Instead, break the chain of transmission by washing your hands regularly, particularly after contact with any high-touch surfaces.
- Clean common surfaces — who knows how many hands touch that office coffee pot on a daily basis (yuck). Cut down on its ability to spread germs by cleaning and sanitizing it regularly — and don’t stop washing your hands after using it. Don’t confine this practice to communal items only, though. Make sure to include your cell phone, reusable water bottle, and anything else that comes with you regularly in your cleaning routine.
- Wear a mask in crowded spaces. The flu is spread by tiny droplets. Whenever an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release tiny particles of the virus into the environment. If you’re standing within range, you’re likely to get infected. Covering your mouth and nose in crowded settings adds another layer of protection.
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow — it’s possible to spread the flu before you even realize you’re infected. Help to prevent spreading the infection by coughing and sneezing into a tissue or your elbow. If you’re experiencing symptoms, stay home until you’re symptom-free.
- Maintain a healthy immune system by eating well, avoiding stress, and getting enough sleep. Starting from a healthy place gives your body the resources it needs to fight off viral infections including the flu.
What to do if you get the flu
While it might feel terrible, most cases of the flu are possible to treat at home. The big keys to treating the flu are rest and fluids. Make sure you’re drinking water, juice, or an electrolyte beverage to replenish your fluid levels even if you don’t feel thirsty. Popsicles, tea, and clear broth are also good options for staying hydrated.
Your best bet, if you’re not at risk of complications from the flu, is to get a lot of rest. Nap, read, watch TV, veg out, call in sick, and put your to-do list away. Your sole aim should be resting your body so you can get better.
Additionally, aim to expand your circle of care beyond yourself by avoiding contact with others. Stay home for 24 hours after being fever-free (without medication) to avoid spreading the flu to your friends, family, coworkers, and others in your community.
If you have a runny or stuffy nose, taking a hot bath or sitting in the bathroom with a steamy shower going can provide some relief. Menthol or eucalyptus oil can also help with congestion so consider using a chest rub or adding some drops to your humidifier. And, if you have a fever or body aches and pains, take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever.
Finally, if you’ve had symptoms for two days or less, speak to a doctor about your options. They may recommend a prescription antiviral medication like zanamivir, or oseltamivir (Tamiflu). These medications can reduce the severity of your symptoms, and even shorten the length of your illness by a day or two.
Antivirals are especially important if you’re pregnant, two weeks postpartum, elderly, or have a pre-existing health condition that increases your risk of flu-related complications.
Which natural supplements should you take to treat the flu?
While echinacea and other natural supplements may bill themselves as effective at shortening bouts of the flu, there’s no evidence to support these claims. Some small studies show that vitamin C may be effective in large doses, but it comes with side effects and more research is needed to confirm this.
Zinc supplements appear to have a small effect on common cold symptoms, however, its effects on the flu virus are unproven. And, like large quantities of vitamin C, taking zinc supplements may cause digestive issues.
Flu complications and when to see the doctor
The flu is quite common in the cooler months, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It can cause a number of complications, including death in some cases. Here’s when to see a doctor.
Coughing and chest congestion are typical flu symptoms, but difficulty breathing isn’t. If you’re struggling to catch your breath it’s a medical emergency. Likewise, confusion, chest pain, seizures, or dizziness are not par for the course. If you’re experiencing any of those symptoms please seek medical care immediately.
Young children especially are at higher risk of complications from the flu. If your child has the flu and seems to be having trouble breathing, shows signs of dehydration, excessive sleepiness, or is experiencing severe pain, they need immediate care.
Children younger than twelve weeks are even more vulnerable. If your newborn develops a fever of 104°F (40°C), speak to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.
If you’re pregnant and have the flu or have been exposed to someone with it, you should speak to a healthcare provider. Being pregnant lowers your body’s natural immune responses. That, coupled with the stress pregnancy puts on your lungs, means you’re at an increased risk for flu-related complications like pneumonia, pre-term labour, and miscarriage.
As well, if you have a pre-existing medical condition, you’re immunocompromised, or elderly, it’s best to speak with a healthcare provider. You’re more inclined to have complications from a bout of the flu, which makes antiviral drugs and a close monitoring of symptoms more necessary.
Finally, if your symptoms begin to worsen after initially getting better, or you’re not feeling significantly better after day five it’s also time to speak to a healthcare provider. It’s possible that you may have developed pneumonia or another secondary infection that requires medical intervention.
How Maple can help
Navigating the flu can be complex. You can sometimes feel so terrible it’s hard to believe that you “just” have the flu. And with so many people on heightened alert about getting sick, you’ll want to do everything you can to avoid spreading the flu to others. If you’re concerned about your symptoms, or if you’re in the first stages of your infection, it’s worth speaking to a doctor online.
A consultation with an online doctor can help you avoid an emergency room for any middle-of-the-night concerns. Additionally, they can also prescribe antiviral medication to help lessen the severity and duration of your illness. Reach out today for all your flu-related symptoms and start feeling better, faster.
This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.