Got the Flu? Here’s What to Do

Getting vaccinated against the flu can greatly reduce your risk of coming down with the illness, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But 100 percent immunity is not guaranteed. What should you do if, despite getting your flu shot, you come down with symptoms?

Many people don’t seek timely treatment for flu symptoms once they feel the virus coming on. A study, published online in April 2014 by the Journal of Infectious Diseases, reported that only 35 percent of adults sought prompt care for their illness over the 2010–11 influenza season.

Every year, more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized for flu-related complications, and up to 49,000 die. Complications, such as pneumonia or worsening of congestive heart failure, can develop quickly. That’s why it’s important to seek immediate medical care if you develop flu symptoms, which may include body aches, chills, fever, cough, sore throat, diarrhea and vomiting, fatigue, headache, and a runny or stuffy nose.

Although many people believe the flu simply needs to run its course, the best treatment for those at high risk for complications from the flu is a prescription antiviral drug, either oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza), within 48 hours of symptom onset. Those at high risk include people 65 and up, the severely ill, or those who have an underlying chronic illness like pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or morbid obesity.

Antiviral drugs reduce the virus’s ability to reproduce, which lessens symptoms and shortens the amount of time you’re sick; you take the drugs for about five days. Because antivirals are more effective when started early, doctors should prescribe them for high-risk individuals before results of diagnostic testing are available. If you’re at low risk and are 65 or younger, you may not be a candidate for an antiviral after the 48-hour window; after two days it’s unlikely the drug will be of benefit to you.

Unfortunately, some clinicians may be underprescribing antivirals for patients who could benefit from them. In a study published online in July 2014 in Clinical Infectious Diseases of 6,766 patients who sought care for flu symptoms during the 2012–13 flu season, only 16 percent diagnosed with the flu received an antiviral. Only 19 percent of people at high risk for flu complications were treated with an antiviral. Yet, 30 percent of patients with symptoms received a prescription for an antibiotic—a drug that’s generally ineffective against the flu virus.

If you feel symptoms coming on—even if you’ve been immunized—call your doctor right away for treatment. Another strategy is to ask your doctor for a prescription now so that it's ready to be filled in case you show flu symptoms later in the season.

Your best bet against catching the flu in the first place is to get your flu shot, and to remember to wash your hands often.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.