Anyone who’s had the flu can tell you it’s worse than the common cold. If you have the flu, you probably want to lie down for a very long time and not do anything else. That’s actually a good idea, experts say. Rest is a key component of a flu recovery strategy.
But what else should you do? Dr. Jeanne James, chief medical officer for BlueCare Tennessee, gives some expert advice on what to do, and what not to do, when you have the flu.
Take the flu seriously
“Flu symptoms are more intense than a typical cold and can more easily lead to secondary infections like pneumonia, or potentially dangerous complications, like inflammation of the heart or even the brain,” says Dr. James “So, you need to take the flu seriously.”
A flu test can confirm if you have the more serious condition, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of influenza include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle soreness or aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
Consider an anti-viral medication
Antibiotics won’t work on the flu virus because they’re designed to attack bacterial infections. A prescription anti-viral medication, like Tamiflu or Xofluza, can shorten the length of your illness and reduce the severity of your symptoms if they are used early.
“If you’ve been sick more than 48 or 72 hours, they won’t really work.,” says Dr. James. “So if you think you have the flu, call your doctor and ask to be seen as soon possible.”
These medications can have side effects, too, so they may not be an option for everyone.
When you have the flu, you need to take care of yourself. Stay home and rest and let your body recover.
“It’s important to stay hydrated,” adds Dr. James. “You may not have much of an appetite, but drink plenty of fluids. And eating bland foods may help you, too.”
And if you’re craving chicken soup, give into the urge! It can help you stay hydrated and provides a little protein, too, says Dr. James.
Typically, a case of the flu will last between 3-7 days, but you can feel weak and exhausted for another week or two.
“Remember, you may need to take it easy the first day or two back, so you don’t get sick again,” says Dr. James.
Clean up everything you touch
It’s important to wash your hands with soap and water frequently. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
The influenza virus can remain on surfaces like countertops or sink faucets, where an unsuspecting person can touch them, then touch their face and get infected. That’s why it’s so important to wipe down those surfaces with a disinfectant and get rid of those germs before someone else can touch them. Your smartphone could probably use a good wipe-down, too, Dr. James notes.
Avoid interacting with other people
You probably won’t feel much like socializing, but it’s important to stay away from others while you’re sick with the flu. You may be contagious for the first 3-4 days of your infection–and sometimes for as long as a week. Most doctors stress the importance of waiting until you’re fever free for at least 24 hours before you try to resume regular activities (and rejoin society) again.
It’s especially important to avoid contact with people who are especially vulnerable to the flu, such as young children, elderly people, and people with a compromised immune system.
And if you can’t avoid being around others, be vigilant about covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Keep tissues handy and throw them away as soon as you use them, says Dr. James.
What else can you do?
If you have any chronic medical conditions, you may need to be extra cautious about being potentially exposed to the flu.
“People who have other chronic health conditions, particularly chronic respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, or people with cardiac conditions, should be more aware because the flu can be much worse when you have those other medical issues,” says Dr. James.
The flu is certainly a very serious illness that affects millions of people. During the 2016-2017 flu season, there were approximately 29 million cases of the flu and 38,000 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. The numbers went up in 2017-2018, although the statistics are still preliminary.
You can do your best to manage the symptoms and recover. Of course, one of the best things you can do is avoid getting the flu in the first place. With that in mind, experts strongly recommending getting a flu vaccine every year.