Chronic stress and high stress levels can cause illness or flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cold, nausea, and body aches. Managing stress may help resolve these symptoms.

Influenza, commonly called the flu, occurs when a person contracts the influenza virus. It is a respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat, and lungs.

It typically causes mild symptoms such as fatigue, muscle ache, nausea, and headaches. However, in some cases, it can cause more severe symptoms, such as chest pain, seizures, and difficulty breathing.

Chronic stress may cause symptoms similar to those seen in a person with the flu. Managing stress may help to reduce symptoms. A person should consider contacting a doctor if the symptoms persist.

This article looks at how stress can cause flu-like symptoms, which flu-like symptoms it can cause, other signs of stress, and stress management.

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Mild or moderate stress is unlikely to cause certain flu-like symptoms like a sore throat and cough. However, chronic stress may result in symptoms such as headaches, fever, and stomach issues, which are also common in people with the flu.

When stressed, a person’s brain may think their body is in danger and trigger the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is a network of nerves that activates the fight or flight response.

The SNS also activates the adrenal gland hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. A rush of adrenaline surging through the body can cause flu-like symptoms, such as weakness, nausea, and headaches.

A 2015 article also suggests a link between inflammation and stress, in which stress can lead to inflammation, disease, and the dysregulation of the immune system.

This dysregulation can make it harder for a person’s body to defend against infections, which can increase their risk of the common cold and flu.

Headache is common in people with high stress levels. A 2022 review of studies suggests that emotional and occupational stressors can cause headaches.

A 2019 article examines how stress can alter the connection between the brain and the gut, leading to functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), including irritable bowel disease.

This can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, which are also flu symptoms.

People experiencing stress may tense their muscles. This can result in body aches, which is a common symptom in people with influenza. Muscle tension can also further worsen existing back or shoulder pain.

A 2015 article suggests that stress can affect a person’s behavioral responses, which may lead to changes in pain sensitivity in some people. This may make them more sensitive to pain from muscle tension.

Chronic stress may also cause flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and general stomach upset.

Can anxiety cause flu-like symptoms?

Anxiety can sometimes feel like the flu. This may be because anxiety and stress are linked. Stress can trigger anxiety in some people.

Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by excessive worrying and anxiety. This disorder can cause physical symptoms similar to the flu, such as tiredness, headaches, and general malaise.

Flu-like symptoms are not the only sign of stress, and some people experiencing stress may show none of the above signs. However, stress may cause other symptoms, such as:

Learn more about how stress can affect the body here.

Stress and flu share some common symptoms, such as headache and fatigue. However, the flu can cause the following additional symptoms:

  • cough
  • sore throat
  • fever or feeling feverish
  • chills
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • high temperature

Learn more about the flu here.

There are steps a person can take to manage flu-like symptoms caused by stress. For example, getting enough rest may help reduce the physical symptoms a person experiences.

Other tips for managing the symptoms include:

  • drinking enough water to avoid dehydration
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication for body pain
  • eating a balanced meal for energy
  • trying a warm compress to help relieve body pain and aches

Headaches caused by stress can typically resolve on their own or with OTC pain relief medications. However, stress management therapies may also help a person prevent or reduce the occurrence of this symptom.

Ways to manage stress

Reducing or eliminating stress levels is an important step in treating flu-like symptoms caused by stress. Here are some steps that may help a person manage their stress:

  • staying physically active
  • taking a hot bath to help relax the muscles
  • getting a full night’s sleep
  • participating in deep breathing exercises
  • engaging in stretching and yoga
  • getting a massage
  • making time for hobbies like reading, watching movies, and playing games

Learn more about what stress is and how to manage it.

It is common for people to experience symptoms such as tiredness, headaches, and body pain when they are stressed. However, these symptoms can subside after relaxation and practicing stress-relieving techniques.

If the symptoms persist, a person may choose to speak with a doctor. They may be able to suggest other stress management techniques specific to a person’s situation.

Other medical conditions not related to the influenza virus can cause flu-like symptoms. Examples of such conditions include:

Here are answers to questions people commonly ask about stress and its symptoms.

Can anxiety or stress make a flu worse?

Stress and anxiety can worsen some medical conditions, such as the flu. Stress and anxiety can increase pain sensitivity for some people and add to existing flu symptoms.

Stress can also weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to defend against a flu infection.

What other ways can stress affect your body?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) states that stress can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. This can also increase the chance of developing mental health conditions like depression.

As well as cause flu-like physical symptoms, stress can reduce a person’s sleep quality and increase the risk of weight gain and heart disease.

Can stress make you vomit?

Stress can affect the gastrointestinal tract. Some people may experience stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting when under stress or living with chronic stress.

Can stress make you physically ill?

Chronic stress can make a person feel physically ill, causing symptoms such as fatigue, muscle pain, and headaches. Since stress can dysregulate a person’s immune system, it may put them at higher risk of infection and contracting illness.

Stress and anxiety are linked. Both can cause physical, physiological, and psychological symptoms. They also share symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue.

These symptoms do not always mean a person has the flu.

However, a person experiencing these symptoms may wish to seek medical attention if the symptoms persist, worsen, or co-occur with some other severe symptoms, as other underlying medical conditions may be the culprit.