How the Flu Is Treated

Knowing what to do when you have the flu can get you on the road to feeling better sooner, and it can help protect those around you from also becoming infected with the influenza virus.

For most people, flu symptoms can be relieved with home remedies or over-the-counter medications. The symptoms usually last between three and seven days (although coughing can linger much longer). In general, antivirals are not recommended, but if you are in a high-risk group, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help prevent complications.

Those at high risk for flu complications include:

  • Adults age 65 and over
  • Children under age 5 (especially under age 2)
  • Children with neurological conditions
  • Pregnant women
  • People who have asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, liver disorders, kidney disorders, HIV/AIDS, or blood disorders
  • People who have disabilities
how the flu is treated
Hilary Allison / Verywell

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

If you develop flu symptoms, it's best for you to stay home and away from other people unless they are providing you medical care until you have not had a fever for more than 24 hours (without using a fever-reducing medication).

Unless you have signs of a medical emergency, you do not need to go to the emergency room when you have the flu. If you must be around other people, wear a face mask to protect others.

If you have severe symptoms or if you think you might be in a high-risk group, contact your healthcare provider within the first 48 hours of developing flu symptoms. This will give you a chance to discuss your symptoms and determine whether you need to start prescription treatment.

What to do at home:

  • You need to rest when you have influenza.
  • You should avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, which can make your symptoms worse.
  • Water and clear liquids are recommended to help prevent dehydration. You should avoid alcoholic beverages when you have the flu.
  • For sore throat, a warm saltwater gargle or lozenges may help provide relief.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications

Over-the-counter medications can relieve some symptoms of influenza, but they will not cure it or shorten its course.

For fever, body aches, sore throat, or headache, you can use Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen). Do not use aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) for children and teenagers because it can lead to Reye's syndrome, which is a serious complication.

Influenza often produces a runny nose, congestion, and cough. Many OTC products are formulated to relieve these symptoms.

They include:

  • Antihistamines may help relieve a runny nose. They include Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (loratadine), Allegra (fexofenadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), and Xyzal (levocetirizine).
  • Decongestants can help with a stuffed-up nose or chest. They include Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) and phenylephrine.
  • Expectorants that include guaifenesin can help loosen mucus. These include products such as RobitussinMucinex, and multi-symptom formulas
  • Cough suppressants can help reduce your coughing. They include dextromethorphan, which should not be given to children under age 4 (consult your healthcare provider for a child age 4 to 11).

Antihistamines or decongestants can also be used to help relieve a persistent cough.

Children may also have vomiting and diarrhea with influenza but should avoid products like Pepto-Bismol that contain aspirin-like salicylates. Likewise, over-the-counter cough and cold medications are not recommended for children under age 4 unless directed by your healthcare provider.

Look carefully at the OTC medication ingredients and uses:

  • Only take medications that treat the symptoms you have. Taking a multi-symptom medication that treats symptoms you don't have can cause unnecessary side effects and may sometimes be dangerous.
  • Avoid taking multiple medications that contain the same or similar ingredients because this can lead to an overdose.

One common ingredient that you want to watch for specifically is Tylenol (acetaminophen), which is included in many multi-symptom cold and flu medications. You may not realize you are taking more than a safe dose, which is no more than 4 grams (g) per day for most people. If you have liver problems, your doctor may recommend a lower maximum dose. Taking too much acetaminophen may lead to liver failure and can be life-threatening.

Prescriptions

Most healthy people will not need a prescription for treating influenza, but your healthcare provider is the best judge as to whether one is recommended given your health history, age, and other factors.

If antiviral medications are recommended, they are most effective when started within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms.

Antiviral medications are different from antibiotics, and they specifically work against the influenza virus to shorten the course of illness, make it milder, and prevent complications.

The FDA-approved antiviral medications for treating influenza are:

  • Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate): Available as a pill or liquid suspension
  • Relenza (zanamivir): A powder administered with an inhaler; not recommended for people who have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Rapivab (peramivir): An intravenous medication
  • Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil): A pill or suspension; not recommended for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a complicated illness

If you or your child are experiencing difficulty breathing, chest pain, confusion, sudden dizziness, or severe lethargy, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Even if you're not in a high-risk group, if you develop flu complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia, contact your healthcare provider.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that no complementary health approach has been shown to be helpful for treating influenza, making it milder, or shortening its course.

For relief of symptoms, using a neti pot or other method of saline nasal irrigation may help with congestion. Be sure to use distilled, sterile, or previously-boiled water to make the saline solution.

Honey may help relieve nighttime cough in children. However, it should never be given to children under age 1 due to the risk of botulism.

A Word From Verywell

Getting some rest is the most important thing to do when you have the flu. There are also treatments that can help you feel more comfortable and help prevent complications. Most schools have policies that require students to stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever has subsided without the use of fever-reducing medications.

Although it may not be a set rule for every workplace, it's a good guideline to follow for adults as well: Just because your fever is gone for a few hours doesn't mean you are better and healthy enough to be at work. Give yourself time to recover.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is flu treated?

    Antiviral drugs are used to treat flu for people with severe symptoms or who are at high risk of complications. When started early—ideally within 48 hours of the first signs of flu—the drugs may reduce the duration of the infection by one day. Bedrest, ample fluids, and supportive care (including fever reducers and expectorants) can help ease flu symptoms.

  • What antiviral are used to treat flu?

    There are four influenza antivirals approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

    • Rapivab (peramivir), given intravenously
    • Relenza (zanamivir), inhaled into the mouth
    • Tamiflu (oseltamivir), taken by mouth
    • Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil), taken by mouth
  • How effective are flu antivirals?

    The efficacy can vary based on the choice of antiviral, the flu strain, when treatment is started, and other factors. When used appropriately, antivirals are between 60 percent and 90 percent effective in reducing the duration of flu by about one day. The drugs cannot fully avert an infection but, in some cases, they may help reduce the severity of illness.

  • What over-the-counter remedies can I use for flu?

    Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help ease flu symptoms. These include multi-symptom cold & flu remedies popularly sold at drugstores.

    OTC options include:

  • How is flu treated in children?

    Flu is treated much the same way in children as it is in adults. Children should be treated with pediatric formulations. Aspirin should never be used in either children or teens because it can cause a potentially deadly condition known as Reye’s syndrome.

  • Are there any natural remedies for flu?

    According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, no complementary or alternative therapy has proven effective in treating flu symptoms or altering the course of the infection in any way.

  • When should I see a healthcare provider about the flu?

    Call 911 or seek emergency care if flu is causing severe symptoms such as:

    • Difficulty breathing
    • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
    • Persistent dizziness or confusion
    • Inability to urinate
    • Changes in consciousness
    • Severe weakness
    • Severe muscle pain
    • Fever or cough that improves but then worsens
    • Worsening of a chronic medical condition
    • Seizures
Was this page helpful?
17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu symptoms and complications.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People at high risk for flu complications.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu: what to do if you get sick.

  4. National Institute on Aging. All about the flu and how to prevent it.

  5. MedlinePlus. Flu.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Caring for someone sick.

  7. MedlinePlus. Dextromethorphan.

  8. MedlinePlus. How to treat the common cold at home.

  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are over-the-counter medicines?

  10. Yoon E, Babar A, Choudhary M, Kutner M, Pyrsopoulos N. Acetaminophen-induced hepatotoxicity: a comprehensive updateJ Clin Transl Hepatol. 2016;4(2):131–142. doi:10.14218/JCTH.2015.00052

  11. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Flu and colds: in depth.

  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Is rinsing your sinuses with neti pots safe? 

  13. Oduwole O, Udoh EE, Oyo-Ita A, Meremikwu MM. Honey for acute cough in childrenCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;4(4):CD007094. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007094.pub5

  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for school administrators to help reduce the spread of seasonal influenza in K-12 schools.

  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza antiviral medications: summary for clinicians.

  16. Lenhert R, Pletz M, Reuss A, Schaberg T. Antiviral medications in seasonal and pandemic influenza. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016 Nov;113(47):799-807. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0799

  17. Goldman RD. Treating cough and cold: guidance for caregivers of children and youthPaediatr Child Health. 2011 Nov;16(9):546-66. doi:10.1093/pch/16.9.564