Influenza spreads every year, and despite your best efforts to wash your hands and guard against germs, there’s still no guarantee you won’t get it. Christine Davis, DO, UnityPoint Health, breaks down how to treat the flu, including what you can do at home and when you need to see a doctor.
Flu Symptoms and Treatment
How do you know if you have flu? Common flu symptoms include:
- Sudden onset fever (temperature greater than 100.4 degrees)
- Myalgia (body aches)
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- General fatigue
If you come down with the flu, Dr. Davis says there are certain self-care steps you can take. She recommends the following ways to treat flu symptoms at home:
- Rest & fluids. The best treatment for influenza is rest and staying well-hydrated because high fevers can be exhausting, and your risk of dehydration is much higher with fevers.
- Over-the-counter medication. Tylenol and ibuprofen can be helpful for reducing fevers and body aches. But, aspirin shouldn’t be used in children, and no ibuprofen should be used in pregnant women or children under 6 months old.
- Cough suppressants & salt water gargles. If your flu symptoms include a sore throat or cough, use over-the-counter cough medicine, such as Robitussin or Delsym. You can also do some gargling with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat. Be sure to check all cough medication ingredients and directions before giving to children.
- Keep to yourself. Stay home from work or school (if possible), and use good hand hygiene, and cover your cough and/or sneezes with your elbow. Stay away from children under 2, especially children under 6 months old who can’t receive flu vaccines yet, as well as adults 65 and older, pregnant women and anyone with chronic immune suppression.
“It’s so important to rest, and keep yourself well-hydrated when diagnosed, so you can recover as quickly as possible,” Dr. Davis says. “It’s equally as important to protect others by avoiding large group gatherings, like work or school, while you are sick.”
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Antiviral Medication for the Flu
There are several antiviral medications that can be prescribed for influenza. The most well-known medication is an antiviral medication called Tamiflu.
“The important thing to note about these medications is that they don’t cure the flu. They’re most effective if given within the first 48 hour of symptoms, and they can shorten the duration of illness by about 24 hours. Additionally, they can decrease the risk of complications from influenza, especially in the high-risk populations,” Dr. Davis says.
You should definitely visit your provider, if you have flu symptoms and are in a high-risk population:
- Children 2 years old and younger
- Adults 65 or older
- Pregnant women or women less than two weeks post-partum
- Chronic medical conditions (asthma, COPD, heart/cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, etc.)
- Adults with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40
- Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions (cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, stroke, etc.)
“Medication is not always prescribed for the flu. Your provider will review your specific situation, including past medical history and length of flu symptoms, and evaluate the risk to you and your family members before prescribing antiviral medication, like Tamiflu,” Dr. Davis says.
Dr. Davis also adds these medications can be used in people who have yet to show flu symptoms to help prevent influenza infection, if they have been exposed to someone with known influenza and are at high risk for complications of influenza or cannot receive the vaccination.
Flu Recovery Time
The average flu recovery time is usually 7-14 days for uncomplicated cases of the flu. Typically, Dr. Davis says the cough can last up to a few weeks (some studies suggest more than 25 days) after other symptoms go away.
How Long is the Flu Contagious?
“The difficult thing about the flu is it can be contagious before you even show symptoms. Usually, an infected person will start to show symptoms 18-72 hours after exposure to the virus but can become contagious up to 24 hours before symptoms actually begin. Most people with the flu continue to be contagious for 5-10 days after the start of symptoms,” Dr. Davis says.
Some strains are worse than others particularly in certain populations. For example, Dr. Davis says Influenza A (H3N2) is linked to more deaths and hospitalizations in people age 65 and older and young children. So far in 2018, this is the strain currently causing concern. If you haven’t received your flu shot, it’s not too late.
“We still recommended all persons over 6 months old should receive the flu vaccine each year, even when the vaccine may not be a great match for the type of influenza going around during any given season. Getting a flu shot can reduce the risk of complications from influenza, and I’d still encourage anyone who hasn’t received one to get one now, and if you are 65 or older, please ask for the high-dose influenza vaccination,” Dr. Davis says.
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