Every winter and spring, influenza rips through the nation, sickening up to 20 percent of the population. And because this all-encompassing respiratory virus is so contagious, it can knock down even the healthiest of us (and sometimes, even those of us responsible enough to get the flu shot), leaving you coughing, sneezing, aching, shaking, and sweating from a fever.
So if you do get the flu, what should you do? First, know there is no quick fix. Your immune system needs time to fight it off naturally, usually about seven to ten days, although it can take up to three weeks to get back to full strength. But in the meantime, there are a few things you can do to help your body do battle, ease those miserable symptoms, possibly shorten the duration of illness, and stop from spreading the flu to others. No, we’re not talking about elderberry syrup here (though that won’t hurt).
To See Your Doctor or Not to See Your Doctor
Flu symptoms tend to come on abruptly and all at once, which is why you’ll hear people say they feel like they got hit by a train. While the sudden sickness can be alarming and make you think you need immediate medical care, doctors actually caution most people against coming into urgent care or the emergency department. Many cases of the flu are mild and don’t require medical attention at all, says Eduardo Lopez, M.D., head of the nephrology department at Kaiser Permanente’s Panorama City Medical Center in California. But even for severe symptoms, the best course of action is usually to stay home and call your doctor instead.
“It’s often best to reach out over the telephone to receive treatment because you are most contagious from one day before symptoms start to three to four days afterward, so if you come into the hospital, you can spread the virus to others,” Lopez explains. “That’s why Kaiser Permanente has physicians available via video and telephone, which also helps to avoid clogging up emergency services.” However, the individual is always the best judge of their symptoms, so it is up to them to decide if an in-person or telephone visit with a doctor is a better fit for their circumstances.
While many cases of the flu can be treated remotely, Lopez says certain people should, in fact, seek urgent in-person care. This includes those with a high risk of flu-related complications: children under age 5, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, or a compromised immune system. Additionally, anyone experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, which can cause dehydration and further complications, should be seen by a doctor.
Stay Home, Sleep In, and Drink Up
Once you’ve consulted with a doctor, your best plan of action is to stay home and keep your distance from others to prevent infecting them. “Do not go to work, and if you live with others, wear a mask and avoid close contact,” Lopez says. “Wash your hands multiple times a day, and try not to touch your nose, mouth, or eyes.” How long you need to remain cooped up depends on the severity and duration of your symptoms, but as a guideline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests staying away from work at least until 24 hours after your fever has subsided.
Also get plenty of rest, which means both sleeping soundly and not straining your body with rigorous movement. “Rest helps the body with repair, so you need your rest in order to recover from the flu,” Lopez says.
Drink plenty of fluids as well, he adds. Along with rest, staying hydrated is the most important thing you can do to help your immune system fight off the virus. Plain water is a must, but hot herbal teas and broth-based soups can also help with hydration — and possibly provide some relief for sinus congestion. For example, chicken soup, while it won’t cure the flu, is an excellent source of fluid, as well as electrolytes to help your body retain that fluid. If you have trouble keeping down fluids, suck on ice chips or electrolyte pops.
As for over-the-counter remedies, Lopez suggests taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed to reduce fever and ease headaches and body aches. To get temporary relief from common flu symptoms, it’s generally fine for adults and children over age six to take decongestants for a stuffy nose or head, antihistamines for a runny nose, and a cough suppressant to tame the hacking. But consult a health care professional first and always follow the dosing instructions on the package.
As for dietary supplements such as vitamin C, zinc, or echinacea, don’t bother. They likely won’t hurt you if you stay within recommended amounts, but there is very little evidence that they do much of anything for the flu.