What are the Best Treatment Options for the Flu?

a cup of tea with medicine for treating the flu
In this article, we will discuss the different treatment options for the flu, when you need to see your doctor, and how long you are contagious when you have the flu.

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The flu is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system. It is a highly contagious disease that can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and even death.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot each year as well as utilizing other tips that we will discuss below.

However, if you do get the flu, there are several different treatment options available to you.

In this article, we will discuss the different treatment options for the flu, when you need to see your doctor, and how long you are contagious when you have the flu.

What is the flu?

The flu, also called influenza, is a very contagious virus that causes respiratory illness, particularly in your nose, throat, and lungs.

You can spread the flu through person-to-person contact by coughing, talking, or sneezing, or by touching something that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

It is caused by the influenza virus, which is a member of the Orthomyxoviridae family of viruses and is divided into three types of flu viruses that affect humans: influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C.

Influenza type A viruses are the most common and cause the most serious illness.

Influenza type B viruses are also common and usually cause a milder illness.

Influenza type C viruses are the least common and usually cause a very mild illness.

You usually will get the flu during flu season, which lasts for most of the colder months in the United States from October until May.

The peak of flu season typically happens during December through February although it can vary from year to year.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The symptoms of the flu are similar to the common cold symptoms but tend to be more severe.

The most common flu symptoms include the following:

  • Fever that is usually moderate to severe (up to 104°F in adults and up to 106°F in children)
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches or body aches
  • Fatigue, weakness, and tiredness
  • Dry cough and sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Chest congestion
  • Loss of appetite

Other less common symptoms may include vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea although these symptoms are more common in children than in adults.

Dehydration from not being able to drink enough fluids because of vomiting or diarrhea can also occur.

How long is the flu contagious?

Symptoms usually start a day after infection although it can be anywhere from one to four days.

You are most contagious with the flu during the first three to four days after your symptoms begin which is when symptoms will likely be the worst and you cough and sneeze the most, but you may be able to spread the flu for up to a week later.

If you have a weakened immune system or are over the age of 65 you may be contagious for even longer as your immune system will take longer to fight the infection.

Children are also capable of spreading the virus for longer for the same reason.

You stop being contagious with the flu when you do not have a fever for 24 hours without the aid of medications.

What are the complications caused by the flu?

The most common complication from the flu is bacterial pneumonia, which can be a serious and sometimes life-threatening illness.

Other less common complications include ear infections, sinus infections, acute respiratory distress syndrome, bronchitis, and dehydration. It is also possible that the flu can cause a worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, kidney disease, liver disease, asthma, or diabetes.

What are the treatment options for the flu?

There is no specific cure for the flu and if you are a healthy adult you will most likely not need to see your doctor although we recommend seeing your doctor if you have any questions or are worried about your symptoms. If you have the flu and are not immunocompromised or do not have a higher chance of developing complications then you can do the following:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Take over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help reduce your fever if you have one
  • Take over-the-counter medications for your cough and congestion
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Stay home if you feel sick
  • Eat a diet that is easy for your stomach which means avoiding rich, fatty, and sugary foods and eating bland food like rice, bread, bananas, crackers, etc.

There are also at-home remedies that can help ease symptoms too such as using a humidifier or running a hot shower and sitting in a steamy bathroom to help with your congestion.

Throat lozenges may also help with a sore throat and your cough too.

Antiviral medications are also an option that can be used to treat it and are usually only utilized if you are at a higher risk of flu complications.

These medications work best if they are started within 48 hours after symptoms start. Antiviral medicines can make the symptoms of the flu milder, prevent hospitalization, and shorten the amount of time you are sick.

There are four different antiviral drugs that are approved for use in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which are oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), peramivir (Rapivab), and baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza). Only oseltamivir phosphate is available in a generic form.

When do I need to see a doctor about the flu?

If you have symptoms of the flu, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible especially if you are at high risk for complications from the flu, which include the following:

  • Children younger than two years old
  • Adults 65 years of age or older
  • Pregnant women or women up to two weeks postpartum
  • Native Americans and Alaska Natives
  • Having chronic lung diseases or respiratory infections such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Having heart disease, including congestive heart failure
  • Having diabetes
  • Having liver or kidney disorders
  • Having blood disorders such as sickle cell disease
  • Being immunocompromised such as cancer patients or those on radiation or chemotherapy
  • Being morbidly obese (BMI of 40 or higher)
  • Living in a nursing home

If any of these apply to you then you need to see your doctor when you become sick with the flu.

You also need to see your doctor if you have worsening symptoms or if you get better but then symptoms become worse again.

When complications such as an earache develop you also need to see your doctor.

Please seek immediate medical care if you have severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, chest pain, seizures, extreme weakness or pain, or if your existing medical conditions get worse.

What are the best ways to prevent the flu?

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a yearly flu vaccine.

The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age or older need to get a yearly flu vaccine with rare exceptions.

There are different types of vaccines available and they are usually given as an injection although there is also a nasal flu vaccine if you can not receive the injected form due to being pregnant or if you have a young child.

The most common side effects of the flu vaccine are soreness, redness, and swelling at the injection site and usually last less than two days.

You may also have mild symptoms such as a low-grade fever or muscle aches for a day or two after receiving the vaccine but these side effects are mild compared to how severe the symptoms can be with the flu.

Other ways of preventing the flu include:

  • Washing your hands frequently or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoiding close contact with sick people and wearing a face mask if have to be around an infected person
  • Covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough with your elbow or a tissue; avoid using your hands
  • Cleaning and disinfecting high-contact surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu virus such as light switches, door knobs, remote controls, and countertops
  • Staying home from work, school, or other public places if you are sick

If you do get the flu, it is important to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away without the use of fever-reducing medications so that you do not spread the virus to others.

You can also take steps to protect yourself from the flu by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.

These lifestyle choices will help to boost your immune system and make it easier for your body to fight off the flu virus.

Summary

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs.

The flu is usually spread by droplets made when you have the flu and cough, sneeze, or talk.

These respiratory droplets can land in the mouths, eyes, or noses of people who are nearby or they can contaminate surfaces.

Treatment for the flu includes rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and pain relievers while antiviral medications can also be used to treat the flu but they need to be started within 48 hours of symptom onset for them to be effective.

If you are at a high risk of complications from the flu you need to contact your doctor as soon as you develop flu-like symptoms.

If you are a healthy adult you will most likely recover from the flu without needing to see your doctor but if your symptoms are severe or you develop complications then you need to seek medical attention.

If you have any more questions about the flu or the treatment options available, please talk to your doctor or health care provider.

References, Studies, and sources:

NIH

Cleveland Clinic 

Mayo Clinic 

WebMD

CDC

medically reviewed and fact checked
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