Why your whole body aches when you’re sick (and what you can do about it)

Coming down with a cold, virus or the flu is never fun. But sometimes you can push through if the symptoms aren’t too bad. Have a sore throat? Gargle. Feeling congested? Take a steam shower. Mild fever? Take fever-reducing medicine. It’s bearable, though not ideal.

But once full-body aches set in (often accompanied by a fever), you may quickly find yourself out of commission. Unlike the muscle aches that can come on after one too many squats, body aches from an illness tend to cause dull pain and discomfort everywhere.

The good news is you can find some relief from full-body aches right in the comfort of your home. Here’s what you need to know:

What causes body aches when you’re sick?

When you have the flu, a common cold, a virus or a bacterial infection, your immune system jumps into action. It reacts by releasing white blood cells to fight off the infection. The reaction causes inflammation, which can leave your muscles feeling achy.

The good news is that your achiness is a sign that your body is fighting off the illness. But the harder your body works, the more severely the body might ache.

Full-body aches are also often accompanied by other symptoms including:

  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Shivering or body temperature changes
  • Cold and flu-like symptoms

What helps body aches

The best way to diminish full-body aches is to treat the underlying cause of the aching. But as you’re waiting for treatment to kick in — or just waiting for a virus to run its course — try to:

Stay hydrated

Some symptoms of cold and flu — such as sweating, vomiting and diarrhea — can leave you dehydrated. But water is essential to your body’s normal functioning and its ability to fight infection. Drink plenty of water, broth, tea or electrolyte drinks. Soup is also a great way to stay hydrated, especially if you are struggling to eat solid foods.

Use heat to relax your muscles

Heat can loosen muscles and provide relief from body aches. If you don’t have a severe fever, a warm bath or shower can be relaxing. But avoid making the temperature too hot — keep the water just above lukewarm to maintain your body temperature. Heating pads or blankets can also offer some comfort, but avoid excessive heat and don’t use them if there is a chance you may fall asleep. 

Regulate your body temperature

Full-body aches often go hand-in-hand with a fever. As a higher body temperature causes you to shiver, your muscles tense up and may begin to ache. To regulate your body temperature, reach for fever-reducing pain medicine, take a cool bath and use only a thin blanket or sheet.

Rest

Research shows that the immune system and sleep are closely connected. Sleep strengthens the body’s defense system. And when the body is fighting infection, it craves more sleep. The problem is that when you are sick, other symptoms often make it hard to sleep soundly. Try to rest as much as possible — it will relax your muscles and speed up the healing process.

Take over-the-counter pain medication

Common pain relievers may help you feel better but be sure to choose non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. NSAIDs have anti-inflammatory properties and block the body’s production of inflammation-causing chemicals. As a bonus, NSAIDs also help reduce fever to regulate body temperature.

When to see your doctor about full-body aches

Body aches from a viral illness typically clear up in a couple of days and improve with home remedies. But if your body aches haven’t gotten better after 3-5 days, check in with your primary care physician (PCP).

See a doctor sooner if your body aches:

  • Appear after a tick bite
  • Accompany severe redness or swelling
  • Occur with a rash

If you don’t have a fever or other symptoms, and you experience body aches often or for prolonged periods of time, make an appointment with your PCP. It could be a sign of a drug reaction or a more severe and chronic underlying medical condition, such as an autoimmune disease.

If you have body aches that aren’t improving, reach out to your primary care physician.


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