Wondering how many days stand between you and a symptom-free existence? Here's how long the flu typically lasts.

By Renee Cherry
September 26, 2019
woman sick with the flu
Credit: ljubaphoto/Getty Images

If you're currently experiencing the chills, fever, or cough that come with the flu, you'd probably love the chance to venture into the future right about now. Since time travel isn't a thing—that we know of—you can at least mentally prep yourself with the knowledge of how long the flu usually lasts.

How Long Does the Flu Last?

Of course, it can vary, but here's a generalized timeline of how long it might take for you to get back on your feet, including how long you're contagious, how long your flu symptoms will last, and any lingering issues or complications that may arise. (But before you scroll, find out whether it's the flu or just a cold.)

Pre-Flu Incubation Period

The incubation period for the flu–the period between when you become infected and when you start showing symptoms–can last anywhere from hours to 6 days. That means if you're showing flu-like symptoms, you might've picked up the virus days ago.

In general, though, symptoms start within a few days. "Symptoms usually appear one to four days after being exposed to the virus," says flu expert Norman Moore, Ph.D., director of infectious diseases scientific affairs for Abbott.

So keep in mind that you could spread the virus to your coworkers before you had any idea you were sick. "It's important to note that you may be able to spread the flu to someone else before you have any symptoms," says Moore. "People with the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins, and can spread the virus to others up to five to seven days after becoming sick." And some people (such as young children and people with weakened immune systems) may still be contagious for an even longer time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Early Flu Symptoms

Once the symptoms arrive, you'll probably wish you were still blissfully ignorant in the incubation period. Fever, cough, chills, and muscle and body aches are all common flu symptoms, and some people also experience diarrhea or vomiting.

How long do flu symptoms last, though? For most people, they can last anywhere from three to seven days, according to the CDC. For elderly people and people with chronic lung disease, symptoms are more likely to last past the seven-day mark, per the CDC. (More info: Flu Symptoms Everyone Should Be Aware of as Flu Season Approaches)

Late Flu Symptoms and Complications

After getting through the approximate three- to seven-day period, some people also experience lingering symptoms. The fever, chills, and muscle aches usually subside in less than a week, but "the cough can persist up to 21 days even in healthy people," says Gustavo Ferrer, M.D., founder of the Cleveland Clinic Florida Cough Clinic.

For some people, the flu can even result in long-term complications or can worsen chronic medical problems. "Flu can evolve to bronchitis with persistent fever, chills, shortness of breath, and wheezings," says Dr. Ferrer. Worst case scenario? Influenza pneumonia, which is when the flu causes serious inflammation or infection of the lungs, aka pneumonia, according to the American Lung Association. "Influenza pneumonia is the most feared because it can evolve to respiratory failure in people with low defenses such as the elderly, pregnant ladies and children," he says.

In some flu cases, doctors recommend riding out the sickness (maybe with some home remedies to help your symptoms). In others—especially with high-risk patients, such as pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions—doctors will prescribe antiviral medications which can shorten the sickness by one to two days. (Related: 41 Percent of Americans Don't Plan to Get the Flu Shot, Despite Last Year's Deadly Flu Season)

There's no definitive rule for how long the flu takes to run its course. But if you want a rough idea of which upcoming plans you'll need to (or get to) cancel, anything within one week will probably be a no-go.