Fighting the Flu

The flu is a contagious infection caused by a set of viruses. The flu occurs most often between November and April with symptoms including fever, headache, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and body aches. Flu symptoms are similar to a cold, but tend to be more severe, occur suddenly, and last 1-2 weeks. Complications are uncommon in young, healthy people but may include pneumonia, bronchitis, ear or sinus infections.

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Treatment and Self-Care

Because flus are caused by viruses, antibiotic treatment (which work against bacteria) are ineffective. Over-the-counter medications may relieve some symptoms, but will not affect the course of the illness. Remember, your symptoms are a sign that your body’s defenses are fighting the virus. Your body will ultimately heal itself, so be patient and be good to yourself!

Self-Care for the Flu

You may follow these general self-care measures to manage your symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of clear fluids.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Inhale steam from a hot shower, vaporizer, or kettle. Moisten air with a humidifier.
  • Maintain a light exercise routine if you feel up to it.
  • Avoid smoking and smoky environments.
  • Over-the-counter medications (decongestants, gargles, lozenges, cough syrups, acetaminophen) can relieve symptoms. It’s usually best to take a medicine targeted for a particular symptom, rather than an all-in-one preparation. Read warning labels. Follow the instructions and use only when necessary.
  • Also see: Cold Care.

When to Call Your Doctor

Flu viruses (and colds) probably account for more unnecessary trips to the doctor than any other causes. Using the self-care measures outlined above can help save you money, time and frustration. However, understanding when you need your doctor's help is also part of wise medical self-care. After 8-10 days, if your symptoms seem to be getting worse, not better, call your doctor.

Related Topics

Fahrenheit to Celsius body temperature conversion chart


Flu Prevention Tips

  • Wash your hands frequently using warm water and soap, scrubbing all surfaces for about 10 seconds. Some flu viruses can live up to two hours on surfaces like desks, phones and door knobs.
  • Avoid touching your face, unless you have clean hands. The eyes, nose and mouth are entry ports for flu viruses.
  • Cover your mouth with a disposable tissue when coughing and sneezing. Dispose of tissues and wash your hands immediately.
  • Avoid sharing objects (cups, utensils, etc.). Wipe down shared equipment such as phones and keyboards.
  • Get enough sleep and manage your stress. Lack of sleep and high levels of stress can reduce immune functioning, thus lowering the body's ability to fend off colds and flu.
  • Drink more water. You may not feel as thirsty during fall and winter, but it's important to make sure you don't get dehydrated. Consume at least 8 glasses a day.
  • Maintain a moderate exercise program 3-4 days a week. It will strengthen the immune system and increase the body's natural ability to fight infection.
  • Eat healthfully. Remember to eat the recommended 5-9 servings per day of fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol can be dehydrating which, in turn, may decrease your resistance.
  • Finally, listen to your body. Stay home if you have a fever and are coughing. You will feel better, recover faster if you rest and reduce the risk of infecting others.

Flu Shots

  • Do you need a flu shot?
    If the flu season is just around the corner, now's the time to consider if you need this year's flu vaccine to reduce your risk of getting bitten by the "bug." A study in a 1995 New England Journal of Medicine reported a 25% reduction in respiratory illnesses among healthy adults who received a flu shot. A nasal flu vaccine has recently been approved for healthy adults under 50 years of age.

  • I keep hearing about the flu shot. Who really needs it?
    An annual flu shot can be potentially life-saving and is highly recommended for people with medical conditions that put them at risk for flu-related complications. This includes people over 65, those with heart problems, lung or kidney disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer, HIV infection, pregnancy and any illness or treatment that weakens your immunity. It is also recommended for those who have frequent contact with, care for, or live with someone with these high-risk medical conditions.

  • I am healthy, without any medical problems, should I get a flu shot anyway?
    If you are in contact with anyone at high risk for complications from the seasonal flu (e.g., you volunteer at a hospital or care for/visit the very young or the very old) the influenza vaccine is very important. If your job entails high public contact where you can become infected or infect others with the flu, the vaccine may prevent you from getting the flu or lessen your symptoms. This group includes staff on the front-lines with lots of student and public contact and child care and health care workers. Some healthy adults decide to get the shot to reduce the risk of being laid up with the flu and its impact on work and studies. Still others attempt to lessen their chances with good health habits -- getting plenty of rest and practicing frequent handwashing -- which also helps to prevent the spread of colds. The flu vaccine won't prevent the common cold.

  • How do I know if I shouldn't receive the vaccine?
    People who shouldn't receive the vaccine include those who have a severe allergy to eggs (used to make the vaccine) and anyone who has ever suffered from the Guillian Barré Syndrome. Persons ill with a fever should wait until they are recovered. The flu shot is indicated for women who are or may be pregnant.

  • Can I get the flu from the flu shot?
    No. Since the vaccine is noninfectious, it cannot cause the flu. The shot, given in the arm, causes few side effects with the most common being soreness at the injection site. Less than one third of those who receive the vaccine experience fever, aches, or malaise, which may last 1-2 days. There is a newly approved nasal flu vaccine that is available for healthy adults under 50 years of age. The nasal vaccine is a live virus vaccine and should not be taken if a member of the household is pregnant or immunocompromised.

  • What should I do if I didn't get the flu shot and I have been in close contact with someone who has the flu?
    Antiviral medication available from your health care provider may be helpful if you have been exposed to the flu and have not been vaccinated.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. It is meant to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between an individual and his/her clinician.

Last reviewed: September 2015

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