What are the treatment options for the flu?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

In most cases, the treatment for influenza (flu) is simple: rest and fluids. This may take several days, and medications can be used to treat specific symptoms during this time. For example, decongestants can be used for nasal congestion while acetaminophen and ibuprofen may be used for fever and aches.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe a prescription antiviral medication to help shorten the length of time you experience influenza symptoms, and help you avoid complications such as pneumonia. Antivirals are usually prescribed only for people at high risk of complications, such as diabetics, people with asthma or COPD, people with disorders of the blood, liver, lungs, kidneys or heart, or people with lowered immune resistance such as those with AIDS. If you are unsure, ask your doctor if you should get antiviral drugs for the flu.

When you have the flu, the most important thing is rest. Plus, if you stay home, there's less risk that you'll spread the flu to other people. Flu can continue to be contagious for up to five to seven days after symptoms appear.

The following may help with flu symptoms:

  • Ask your healthcare professional about the prescription antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). Antivirals attack the virus at the source and to be effective, should be started within 12 to 48 hours from the time the first symptoms appear. If taken within the proper timeframe, antivirals can help you feel better faster. Tamiflu, an oral medication available in capsule or liquid form, is approved for people one year and older. Relenza, an inhaled medication, is approved for people seven years and older. Side effects are mild and may include nausea and, less commonly, vomiting. Relenza may cause some nasal irritation.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Hot liquids may relieve the feeling of congestion and loosen phlegm.
  • Take a pain reliever like acetaminophen for aches and fever. However, don't use aspirin or products containing aspirin on anyone under 19 years of age, because there is a strong link between aspirin and Reye's syndrome, a disease that affects all body organs, particularly the brain and liver, in children.
  • Take a cough suppressant for relief from a dry, hacking cough when trying to sleep. A cough that produces mucus or sputum is not necessarily a symptom of flu, but it can be a symptom of a cold or other illness. If you are coughing up sputum, you may have developed a secondary bacterial infection that needs to be treated by a health care professional. Don't use a suppressant if you are coughing up mucus; it's important that you get those substances out of your lungs.
  • Use a humidifier, respirator or steamer in the bedroom to help ease congestion.

Antibiotics will not work on a viral infection like the flu. Most often, your body must recover on its own. Antiviral medication can be helpful for a person sick enough to be hospitalized with the flu or for those at higher risk for medical complications.

Check with your health insurance company to find out if it will cover antiviral medication in your situation.

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

Your doctor may prescribe anti-viral medication that can help you get over flu faster. People at high risk for complications (children under 5, adults 65 and older, and people with other chronic health problems like asthma or heart disease) should contact their doctors if they develop flu symptoms.

To treat symptoms:

  • Get plenty of rest. Rest helps your body fight infection.
  • Drink lots of fluids such as water and clear soups to loosen mucus and prevent dehydration
  • Use saline (salt water) nose spray to loosen mucus and moisten your nose.
  • To bring down fever, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. These drugs may also ease body aches, but can take up to 45 minutes to work. A slightly warm bath or a cool, damp washcloth on the forehead may help reduce fever. (A warm washcloth on the forehead may ease sinus pain.)
  • To relieve a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water a few times a day. (Mix one cup of water with one teaspoon of salt). Also, try sucking ice chips, hard candy or lozenges.
  • A humidifier may ease dry coughs and congestion. You can also take cough medicine and decongestants available over the counter. Follow the label directions carefully.
  • For stomachaches, plain foods and clear liquids may help. Adults can also take medicine to treat loose stools.
  • Stay away from cigarette smoke, which can make symptoms worse.
  • Avoid alcohol, which tends to dehydrate.

Consult your doctor if symptoms get worse or don't improve for several days.

There are plenty of things you can do to help protect yourself from the flu virus. We suggest getting the flu shot, washing your hands often, using good cough etiquette, etc. Even after taking all of these precautions you can still catch the dreaded virus. If you have the flu, you should follow these simple tips to get over the virus quickly:

  • Relax. You need to be on bed rest and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Getting plenty of sleep will make it easier to deal with your symptoms.
  • Eat right. Greasy food is not going to help you feel better. Make the extra effort to pack some protein such as lean meat, fish, eggs or nuts into your diet. They are all high in B6 and B12 and will help keep you strong. Fruit is another great food to eat while flu-ridden.
  • Take your meds. Take it at the correct time and however many days as your doctor has instructed you to. Also, taking over-the-counter medicine such as a decongestant is great to help relieve a few of your symptoms while your prescription is kicking in.
Dr. Susan S. Blum, MD
Preventive Medicine Specialist

The flu can be unbearable, but there are ways to make it easier and shorter. In this video, preventive and functional medicine specialist Dr. Susan Blum gives tips on how to boost your immune system during a bout.

Dr. Steve Ventola
Chiropractic Medicine Specialist

First look at your lifestyle.

With the flu it is obvious you need to rest. While you are resting it is important that with the energy you do have to read or watch something inspirational to you. This will help to stimulate your immune system and help with your recovery.

Secondly, look at taking homeopathic, herbal or nutritional support that helps your immune system. Olive leaf as an herbal and thymus support as a nutritional are two remedies that can help.

Lastly, if the flu has gone to a very acute stage then medications may be necessary.

Remember though with any health condition the first area you want to look at is lifestyle, then natural support in the form of homeopathic, botanicals or nutritionals and as a last resort medication.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.