What to Do if You Get the Flu
If you get sick with the flu this year, it's important to
remember that most healthy people recover from the flu without
complications. However, there are many ways to ease the impact
of influenza, says Keith Kaye, M.D., assistant professor of
infectious diseases at Duke University Medical Center.
Many people treat their flu infections by resting in bed,
drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier and taking
over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or acetaminophen. Do
not give aspirin or aspirin-containing products to children and
adolescents who have the flu because of the risk of Reye's
syndrome, a condition that affects the nerves. Do not take
antibiotics to treat the flu because they do not work on
viruses. Antibiotics only work against some infections caused
"If possible, stay home from work, school and errands when
you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your
illness," Kaye said. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue
when coughing or sneezing and promptly throw away the tissue.
It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
If you have flu-like symptoms, your doctor may give you a
test to find out whether you have influenza. It is very
difficult to distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial
causes of respiratory illnesses on the basis of symptoms alone,
If there is a flu outbreak and you have not received the flu
vaccine, your doctor may choose to give antivirals to you as a
preventive measure, especially if you are at high risk for
complications from the flu. Also, if you are in close contact
with someone who is considered at high risk for complications
from flu, you may be given antiviral drugs to prevent passing
flu to the high-risk person during an outbreak.
Your doctor will decide whether you should get antivirals
and which one you should get.
Three antiviral drugs are available for use in preventing flu.
When used for prevention, they are about 70 percent to 90
percent effective for preventing illness in healthy adults.
Four antiviral drugs are approved for treatment of the flu. If
taken within two days of getting sick, these drugs can reduce
the symptoms of the flu and shorten the time you are sick by up
to two days. They can also make you less contagious.
"Antiviral drugs are effective only against influenza
viruses. They will not help the symptoms associated with the
common cold or many other flu-like illnesses caused by viruses
that circulate in the winter," Kaye said.
For example, a cold and the flu are alike in many ways. A
stuffy nose, sore throat and sneezing are usually signs of a
cold. Tiredness, fever, headache and major aches and pains
probably mean you have the flu. Coughing can be a sign of
either a cold or the flu. But a bad cough often points to the
flu. Children can have additional gastrointestinal symptoms
such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but these symptoms are
uncommon in adults. Although the term "stomach flu" is
sometimes used to describe vomiting, nausea or diarrhea, these
illnesses are caused by other germs and are rarely related to
You usually do not have to call your doctor right away if
you have signs of a cold or flu. But you should call your
doctor if your symptoms get worse, your symptoms last a long
time, or, after feeling a little better, you develop signs of a
more serious problem. Some of these signs are feeling sick to
your stomach, vomiting, high fever, shaking, chills, chest pain
or coughing up thick, yellow-green mucus. If you have any of
these symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately so
you can get appropriate treatment.
The time from when a person is exposed to flu virus to when
symptoms begin is about one to four days, with an average of
about two days. The period when an infected person is
contagious depends on the age of the person. Adults may be
contagious from one day prior to becoming sick and for three to
seven days after they first develop symptoms. Some children may
be contagious for longer than a week.