What to Do if You Get the Flu

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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 by bacteria.

"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, Kaye said.

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.

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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 influenza.

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.

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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