What Can You Do If You Get the Flu?

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

The flu syndrome has been reported in all 50 states of the U.S. and continues to rise each week. Twenty-nine states have reported widespread flu-related illnesses as of the second week of December. So far, those over age of 65 have suffered the worse consequences (hospitalizations or death). Childhood hospitalizations also have been on the rise, but deaths from flu or flu-like illnesses have been low relative to previous years (although it is still early in the season).

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) collects information on flu activity nationally and worldwide. It also publishes annual updates and guidelines for managing and preventing the flu syndrome. By far, the most important step in flu prevention is getting a flu shot.

I've previously reported on  how to prepare for flu season, but what steps can you take if you develop signs or symptoms of the flu?

The flu syndrome can sometimes be tricky to diagnose because there are  other viruses  that can cause flu-like illnesses. Furthermore, tests to confirm the influenza infection are not readily available in many medical offices and clinics.

Signs and symptoms of the flu syndrome include:

Fever (body temperature of 101 degrees F or greater)

Sore throat


Body aches (muscle and joint pain)


Cough (often dry)

Runny nose/watery red eyes

Reddened or flushed skin

Consider calling your doctor early on if you have flu symptoms because it gives him/her a chance to determine if more steps should be taken to diagnose it, or whether treatment with prescription medication is warranted. If you've already suffered from flu symptoms for several days, an antiviral medication may be less helpful, but call your doctor if you suddenly have worsening symptoms. Complications of pneumonia may follow the flu syndrome and cause life-threatening respiratory problems.

Seven things to do if you have the flu:

Stay home. Reduced activity with plenty of rest is part of the treatment for the flu. Usually, you feel so badly that there is not much desire to do anything anyway. But workaholics sometimes need some encouragement to stay put in the first few days of contracting the flu syndrome. You also don't want to spread the virus to friends, classmates, co-workers or other relatives.

Call your doctor for reasons stated above.

Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration further aggravates the flu illness and slows recovery. Water, soup broths, sports drinks and other electrolyte-filled beverages may help to counter the consequences of sweating and poor appetite.

Manage your fever according to your health provider's recommendations. Avoid aspirin in children and young adults since it has been associated  Reye's syndrome  when taken in the setting of influenza. Cool compresses applied to the forehead, neck or extremities may provide short-term relief.

Gargle with warm salt water to soothe the throat.

Stay under the covers with appropriate clothing to handle bothersome chills.

Humidified air may help the nasal passages and bronchial airways.

Who should get an antiviral medication?

Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza) are the medications of choice for treatment of influenza. With rare exception, flu viruses have been sensitive to these agents (actually, there's been no history of resistance to Zanamivir). If started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, they may reduce flu symptoms by a day or two, and reduce the risk of complications (though there's less supporting evidence for the latter). Hospitalized patients suffering from the flu almost always get treatment, even if several days of flu symptoms have passed.

Tamiflu and Relenza may also be used to prevent influenza in individuals who have recent or current history of contact with someone who has the flu syndrome.

These medications are not for all flu victims because they have potential side effects (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain and, rarely, skin rash). Your doctor will decide whether antiviral treatment is necessary based on age and medical risk factors (history of asthma or other chronic medical conditions).

Final words

This year's flu vaccines cover three or four flu viruses identified in previous flu seasons. Unfortunately, almost a third of the flu viruses identified in America are from a strain not covered by this year's vaccines (AH3N2). Flu vaccination is still very important because coverage with the other flu virus strains may still reduce influenza risks. Flu vaccines are not considered or expected to be perfect, which is why a comprehensive approach to preventing and treating the flu syndrome is necessary. Check out some of the links below for more information on managing and preventing the flu syndrome.

References and other articles:

Preparing for Flu Season

Should Pregnant Women Get Flu Vaccine?

Flu Syndrome: Pneumonia Vaccine Guidelines

Good News / Bad News on Flu Season 2013-14

CDC- Influenza Surveillance map