How the Flu Is Treated

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Most healthy people will only need home remedies or over-the-counter medications to treat flu symptoms, which generally last between three and seven days (although coughing can last much longer). Still, it's worth speaking with your healthcare provider to see if a prescription for an antiviral medication may be advised to help prevent complications—especially if you are in a high-risk group.

Knowing what to do when you have the flu cannot only get you on the road to feeling better sooner, but it can help protect those around you from also becoming infected with the influenza virus.

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
  • Those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, liver disorders, kidney disorders, HIV/AIDS, or blood disorders.
how the flu is treated
Hilary Allison / Verywell

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

If you develop flu symptoms while at work, school, a friend's house, or in any public place, go home. Until you have not had a fever for more than 24 hours (without using a fever-reducing medication), stay there and away from anyone unless they are providing you medical care.

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 go out, wear a face mask to protect others.

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 if you are in a high-risk group and should start prescription treatment.

Resting is needed when you have influenza. You should also avoid smoking and secondhand smoke, as this may make your symptoms worse.

Water and clear liquids are recommended for those who have influenza. This will help prevent dehydration. You should, however, 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 of the 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), which is especially to be avoided by children and teenagers as 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 for a runny nose, which include Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritan (loratadine), Allegra (fexofenadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), and Xyzal (levocetirizine)
  • Decongestants for a stuffed-up nose or chest, which include Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) and phenylephrine
  • Expectorants to help loosen mucus, which include guaifenesin, found in products such as RobitussinMucinex, and multi-symptom formulas
  • Cough suppressants should only be used if coughing is too painful to tolerate. They include dextromethorphan, which should not be given to children under age 4 (consult your doctor 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 doctor.

Only take medications that treat the symptoms you have. Taking a multi-symptom medication that treats symptoms you don't have is not only a waste, but it can cause unnecessary side effects and may sometimes be dangerous. Likewise, avoid taking multiple medications that may 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 and a maximum of 2 g per day for those with liver problems. Taking too much acetaminophen can be life-threatening and lead to liver failure.


Most healthy people will not need a prescription when they get influenza, but your doctor is the best judge as to whether one is recommended given your health history, age, and other factors.

Consulting your doctor as soon as you have flu symptoms gives you a chance to get a prescription antiviral medication if it would benefit you. Antiviral medications should be started within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms to be the most effective.

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 influenza are:

  • Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate): Available as a pill or liquid suspension and can be given to anyone age 14 days or older
  • Relenza (zanamivir): A powder administered with an inhaler for those ages 7 years and older; not recommended for those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Rapivab (peramivir): An intravenous medication
  • Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil): A pill for those ages 12 and older, but not recommended for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, hospitalized, 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 symptoms of a common flu complication such as bronchitis or pneumonia, contact your healthcare provider to determine the best course of action for you.

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

Knowing what to do when you get the flu may not make having it any easier, but it will ensure that you follow the steps you need to get on the road to recovery as quickly as possible. 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 a 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. When started early—ideally within 48 hours of the first signs of flu—the drugs may reduce the duration of the infection by one to two days. 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 a nostril
    • 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% and 90% effective in reducing the duration of flu by one to two days. The drugs cannot fully avert an infection but, in some cases, may help reduce the severity of illness.

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

    Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are used solely to 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. However, children should only be treated with pediatric formulations. Aspirin should never be used in either children or teens with flu as 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 doctor 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
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Article Sources
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