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Autumn is here, and so is influenza—better known as the flu, a nasty viral infection that strikes millions every year, both in the winter and spring. If you have full-blown flu, you will likely feel very unwell and may be confined to bed for a day or three. And you may be looking—like all of us—for the best flu treatments.
This flu season (2017-2018) is shaping up to be bad one, if Australia is anything to go by. (Click here to read the Australian government’s “Influenza Surveillance Report and Activity Updates.) Flu is highly contagious and can spread through a workplace or school like wildfire. Though debilitating, it is usually self-limiting, with most people recovering within a week or so. It is the young, the elderly, and the chronically sick who need to worry most about flu, for it can cause them serious complications—and can even be fatal.
Home Flu Treatments: What Are the Best Flu Remedies?
So you’re one of the unlucky ones to come down with the flu: Now what? Most people with the flu don’t need to see a doctor unless they are very unwell or in a risk group (see below).
The key is to help your body heal itself. When you have flu symptoms, your body is battling the virus itself along with the inflammation caused by it. The following seven flu treatments should help you get past the symptoms in a few days. (See our post “How Long Does the Flu Last?“)
Flu Treatment #1: Stay hydrated.
Experts at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City recommend that you “drink lots of fluids.” When you have a fever and are fighting a virus, you need plenty of fluids to help your body fight the infection and to replace fluids lost from sweating and any vomiting or diarrhea you may have. Water is best but drink whatever you fancy (other than alcohol and coffee) and plenty of it. Hot water with lemon and honey and herbal teas containing ginger, berries or Echinacea are old favorites for many.
COMMON FLU SYMPTOMS
If you’ve been in contact with someone with the flu virus, you may not notice the effects for a few days. Then you start to feel a little achy, or sneezy, or you may wake up in the morning feeling like you’ve been beaten up. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you may get one of several of these symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Flu Treatment #2: Rest to restore your energy.
Rest is another “must” advised by Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, whose experts note that bed rest helps you to avoid complications like pneumonia. We couldn’t agree more. Listen to your body. If you feel exhausted, weak, and dizzy, stay in bed. Rest and sleep really are the best medicine.
Flu Treatment #3: Maintain a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
For many people, flu knocks out their appetite. If you’re healthy, you’ll not need to worry about this for a couple of days. When you are up to eating, it’s tempting to reach for comfort foods like cookies and ice cream, but you’re better off opting for a healthy green salad, a superfood smoothie, or some good old homemade vegetable or chicken soup.
Flu Treatment #4: Take over-the-counter medications.
Your options among medications designed to relieve symptoms include:
- Pain and fever reducers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), which will reduce fever and inflammation and aches and pains. Children under 19 should not take aspirin.
- Decongestants, which may help open your nasal passages, so you can breathe easier
- Cough medicines. Try cough suppressants for a dry cough and an expectorant if your cough is wet and productive (of mucous).
Those are “The Big Four” flu treatments. But there are other research-backed natural flu remedies that may help you get back on your feet promptly, so we’ll continue with our list.
Flu Treatment #5: Use zinc for an immune system boost.
According to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), “Oral zinc lozenges may reduce the duration of the common cold (research is sparse on flu), when started within 24 hours and taken for a time period of less than 2 weeks.” They advise against the use of intranasal zinc. Some clinicians warn, however, that side effects (such as dry mouth, constipation, and nausea) can result from use with several medications. Limit zinc use to one week only, and stop if you get side effects.
Flu Treatment #6: Soothe your cough with honey.
Honey may offer some sweet relief for your sore throat and cough. Research from the Cochrane Database, a leading repository of clinical evidence, found that “Honey may be better than diphenhydramine for relieving and reducing the effect of cough on children. Honey may also allow parents and children to sleep better than diphenhydramine.” Buckwheat honey may be best of all. (Keep in mind that honey must not be given to babies under the age of 1.)
If it turns out your flu is actually a cold, no matter—it’s still a top home remedy to relieve those sore throat and cough symptoms.
Flu Treatment #7: Try nasal irrigation to help breathing.
Research shows that saline nasal irrigation can be useful for treating nasal symptoms.
What About Herbal Remedies and Vitamin C?
Several herbal remedies are touted to help treat flu, including: North American ginseng, licorice roots, berries and pomegranate, guava tea, and Bai Shao. Although many people swear by these herbal favorites, there needs to be further scientific research to support their effectiveness.
Many also reach for megadoses of vitamin C when flu symptoms strike, this may not be the best approach. The NCCIH remarks, “For most people, vitamin C does not prevent colds and only slightly reduces their length and severity.”
Large doses are not recommended. You are better off eating a delicious orange or kiwi, which have many additional benefits for health; see our post on vitamin C.
When to See Your Doctor for Flu Treatment
Experts in New York from Weill Cornell Medical College recommend that you see your doctor if you develop:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
Some people are at increased risk of developing flu complications. Physicians at Weill Cornell warn that people with the following conditions should be very cautious if they get the flu:
- Suppressed immune systems (including HIV)
- Heart, kidney, lung, or liver disease
- Neurocognitive and neuromuscular disorders
Also requiring caution when flu symptoms develop:
- Pregnant women
- Adults 65 years and older
- Children younger than 5 years old. (A 2017 review of research by Kondrich and Rosenthal concluded, “Both healthy and chronically ill children can fall prey to complications either due to the virus itself or secondary bacterial infection.”)
If you fall into any of these groups, see your doctor as soon as you start experiencing symptoms.
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
Influenza is spread by droplet infection and it is a hardy bug able to survive for two to eight hours on surfaces. Disgusting, right? All more reason to adhere to the following advice from physicians at Weill Cornell Medical College:
- Get yourself vaccinated in the fall or early winter, especially if you are in the “risk groups” above.
- Stay home when you are sick. This will speed your recovery and reduce the risk of passing the flu on.
- Cover your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze, it’s amazing how far those droplets can spread.
- Clean your hands. Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hands cleaners, especially after you cough or sneeze.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, as this can be a route for infecting you.
- Avoid close contact (six feet or less) with people who are sick.
- Take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor recommends them. The CDC explains “antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia (especially in high risk individuals).”
Fit, healthy people are at reduced risk of catching the flu and getting sick if they do. The basic advice to boost your immune system: Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, manage your stress, sleep well, don’t smoke, and don’t drink alcohol in excess.