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Division of Disease Control

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Flu Treatment and Care

How do I know if I have the flu?

The flu affects people every fall and winter, the time of year known as "flu season."  Flu symptoms usually start about one to three days after exposure to the virus.  Often, the onset of symptoms seems sudden.  Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue (feeling very tired)

While it is easy to mistake the flu for a cold, it is important to know the difference.  In general, the flu is worse than the common cold.  Symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and more intense.  A doctor can give you a flu test within the first few days of illness to see whether you have the flu.

What should I do if I get sick?

If you get sick:

  • Stay home.  Get plenty of rest and take it easy.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) to relieve fever and aches.
  • Avoid taking aspirin unless your doctor says it's okay. Ask your doctor before giving any medicines to children or people who have other health conditions.

If you are sick, don’t spread it to others:

  • Stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.  Avoid contact with other people (unless you need to get medical care).
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

When someone in your household is sick, take these steps to prevent the flu from spreading to others:

  • Keep personal items separate. Don’t share computers, pens, towels, eating utensils, etc.
  • Disinfect surfaces that are commonly touched, such as doorknobs, toys, countertops, sink faucets, etc.
  • Make sure everyone in the household cleans their hands often.  Use soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub.

When to seek medical care

Most people with the flu can get better at home and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs.
However, some people are more likely to get flu complications, such as:

  • Young children
  • People 65 and older
  • People with other health conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, congestive heart failure, lung disease)
  • Pregnant women

These people should talk to a health care provider about whether they need to be examined.  Also, it's possible for healthy people to develop severe illness from the flu, so anyone concerned about their illness should talk to a health care provider.

Anyone who has any of these emergency warning signs should get medical care right away

Emergency warning signs in children:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for an infant who has any of these signs:

  • Being unable to eat
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

Emergency warning signs in adults:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu–like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

What medicines can treat the flu?

There are medicines called antiviral drugs that can help make you better faster and may also prevent serious complications.  It’s very important that antiviral drugs be used early (within the first two days of symptoms). Using them after the two-day cutoff is still helpful, especially for those with high-risk factors or for individuals who are very ill with the flu. They are not available over-the-counter, so a doctor must prescribe them.

Antiviral drugs should be used to treat flu in people who are very sick (for example people who are in the hospital) and people who are sick with flu and have a greater chance of getting serious flu complications like pneumonia.  Antiviral drugs should be taken for five days. However, hospitalized individuals may be required to take antiviral for a longer period of time.

Most healthy people with flu, however, do not need to be treated with antiviral drugs. 

Remember, the flu is caused by a virus.  Because antibiotics (drugs like penicillin) only kill bacteria (not viruses), they do not work to treat the flu.


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