The Grapevine

Feeling Sick? Not Yet? Here’s What You Need To Know About Avoiding Or Treating The Flu

flu
To avoid this year's flu, wash your hands and boost your immune system; if you're already sick, drink fluids and treat your symptoms. Leonid Mamchenkov, cc by 2.0

It's peak flu season once again, so consider yourself fortunate if you are not currently home in bed. That said, there's a lot more to not getting sick than dumb luck. The Cleveland Clinic recommends these simple steps to protect yourself from flu and other everyday contagious illnesses:

  • Wash your hands. Avoid touching your face and wash before meals.
  • Know someone already sick? Clean and disinfect surfaces contaminated with their germs. 
  • Boost your immune system by eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, managing stress, and (best of all) avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. 
  • Get a flu shot: Even mid-season, a vaccine will reduce your chances of catching the virus or lessen the severity of your symptoms. 

Once they begin to suffer symptoms, many people confuse the flu with other illnesses. Unlike the common cold, for instance, the flu arrives suddenly and intensely: Your fever is high, the coughing is bad, and usually there are aches, pains, and fatigue not typically associated with a cold. A flu will send you directly to your bed, yet most likely it will not last as long as a cold, which may linger (mildly) for weeks.

And, despite the name, a stomach flu or "24-hour bug" is different from seasonal flu. It’s a different virus, one that targets your intestines, whereas the virus responsible for causing the seasonal flu attacks your airways. That said, a stomach virus can lead to severe vomiting and diarrhea and make you just as miserable as a true blue flu. Beware!

Treatment

So you're already sick or just beginning your symptoms — what now?

The flu is a virus, not a bacteria, so antibiotics (which kill bacteria) will not be effective; the flu must "work its way out of your system," as Grandma liked to say. Meanwhile, if necessary, treat your symptoms.

"Basic supplies will allow you to weather most of the symptoms the cold or the flu might throw at you this season," Dr. Douglas W. Harley, a Cleveland Clinic physician, explained in a press release. The basics he recommends keeping close at hand include:

  • Fluids! Water, juice, soup.
  • Steam or nasal spray for congestion (and tissues)
  • Warm, salt water to gargle; cough drops; and herbal tea with honey for your sore throat
  • Aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen to relieve aches and fever

Most of us can safely treat our flu symptoms at home; however, those in a high risk group young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system (such as cancer patients) — may require a doctor's care. Call your primary care physician immediately and ask for advice.

Worried you may be severely ill? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you visit the ER only if you experience these warning signs:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Pressure or pain in the chest
  • Confusion, disorientation or fainting
  • Severe or persistent vomiting 
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with fever and worse cough

So that's the score. The flu may be an unhappy experience but the majority of patients survive. In the meantime, protect your health (hello, Kale, haven't seen you since before the holidays) and click here for more information.

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