You Have the Flu—Now What?

Woman sick in bed with a cup of tea and a tissue box

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If you have been diagnosed with the flu, or believe you have it, there are many flu treatment options for you to consider. Learn about various flu treatments and discover which one is right for you and your symptoms.

Antiviral Medications

If your symptoms started within the past 48 hours, you may benefit from taking an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza. These medications have been proven to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms in many people.

Certain people are at higher risk for complications from the flu than others and will be more likely to benefit from antiviral medications. If you do not fall into one of the high-risk categories, your health care provider may not feel that antivirals would be of benefit. Like all medications, they do have side effects and most healthy adults recover from the flu without any complications.

It is important to remember that antiviral medications do not cure the flu or kill the flu virus, they only shorten the duration of the symptoms.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Like prescription antiviral medications, over-the-counter medications will not cure the flu, but they may make dealing with the symptoms a little easier.

Flu symptoms typically include fatigue, fever, weakness, cough, headache, and congestion. There is a multitude of medications available to help you counteract most of these symptoms. There is no "best" flu medication because every person responds to medications differently. You have to figure out what works best for you. However, there are several important points to remember when taking over the counter flu medications:

  • Take medications that treat only the symptoms you have. While a pill that treats five different symptoms may be convenient, you could actually be causing yourself more discomfort due to side effects from a medication that you don't need.
  • Know the active ingredients in all of the medications you are taking. Lots of multi-symptom medications contain fever reducers/pain relievers and too many of them can quickly add up and put you in real danger. Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage and too much ibuprofen or aspirin can cause stomach problems or bleeding. These are not minor side effects, so be sure you are aware of what is in every medication that you put in your body and the total dosage of each of them.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential medication interactions. Even if you only take one over the counter flu medication, you need to be sure it does not interact with any other medications you take on a regular basis. For example, if you have high blood pressure or heart problems, there are many over the counter flu medications that can be very harmful. Even if your daily medications only include vitamins or herbal supplements, these can interact with flu medications as well.

Humidify the Air

A humidifier can be a very powerful tool when you have a cold or the flu. Constant coughing and swelling in the nasal passages can cause serious irritation. Using a cool mist humidifier that is properly cleaned every day can make a big difference in how comfortable your breathing is.

Humidifiers put extra moisture in the air, which makes it a little less dry and irritating for you to breathe. They are especially useful at night when you will be in the same position for many hours. They can even help thin the mucus in your sinuses and help it drain more easily.

Try Saline Spray or a Neti Pot

Another "non-medication" option is to use a neti pot or saline spray to rinse your sinuses when you are congested. Both use a mild salt water solution to clean out the sinuses. It is not a long-term treatment, but it is very effective and will provide immediate relief. It can also be repeated as often as necessary.


While it may seem impossible to actually take a few days off and rest, if you have the flu, there really isn't any other option. It is much worse than a cold or most any other virus, and you honestly just won't have the energy to do much of anything.

Concerned about starving a fever and feeding a cold? Don't be. Eat what you feel like eating even if it's nothing. The most important thing is to stay hydrated. Keep drinking water or electrolyte drinks (such as Gatorade or Powerade) as much as you can. If you are vomiting and cannot keep anything down for an extended period of time (more than a few hours), contact your healthcare provider.

Thinking about calling in sick? Do it. If you really have the flu, you won't be doing anyone any favors by trying to work through it. You will prolong the illness for yourself and expose other people and get them sick in the process. Stay home if you have the flu, especially for the first 2-3 days and until 24 hours after your fever is gone.

Want to try to exercise? If you have the flu, you probably aren't even considering it. But if you are a hardcore athlete, it may be hard to let go of the routine for a few days. Just like it's important not to try to go to work, it's equally important not to try and exercise when you have the flu. Your body needs all the energy it can get to fight off the virus. Until the cough, fever, and fatigue are gone, take it easy and let yourself rest.

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Article Sources

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  • US Department of Health and Human Services. "Medications & Antivirals."
  • US Department of Health and Human Services. "Treatment & Medicine FAQs."