We’ve known about the flu forever: Hippocrates first described this illness in 412 B.C. Only recently has science finally started to unlock the mysteries of influenza and develop medications that can get us back on our feet faster.

Influenza (Flu)

What is influenza?

Influenza—most of us are well enough acquainted with it to call it by its nickname, flu—is caused by one of three strains of viruses. The first flu virus (Type A) was identified in the 1930s. We now know it as the most common, as well as the most serious. Type B viruses generally produce a milder version of the flu than Type A. Type C rarely causes illness in humans.

Flu viruses are highly contagious, entering your body through your nose or mouth. You can inhale the virus when someone with the flu sneezes or coughs near you, or you can catch it by shaking hands or kissing someone who is still infectious. The flu virus can live up to three hours outside the body, so you also can pick it up from surfaces such as telephones, doorknobs, or shared cups. You become infected when your unwashed hands touch your nose or mouth.

The good news about the flu is that once you’ve had a particular strain of the virus, you’re permanently immune to it. The not-so-good news is that the viruses constantly transform themselves, so new variations make the rounds every year. That’s why new flu vaccines are developed for every flu season.

After the virus enters your body, it can take up to four days for flu symptoms to strike. They can be hard to distinguish from the common cold. You are most likely to spread the flu to others from the time you first encounter the virus—before you even have any symptoms—until three or four days after symptoms appear. The flu tends to arrive all at once, with a fever of 101° to 103°F that lasts for three to five days, headache, chills, dry cough, stuffy nose, sore throat, body aches, and loss of appetite. It generally takes most people about 10 days to recover from a bout of the flu.

Who is at risk for the flu?

The flu season usually runs from November to March, sometimes into April. Upwards of 35 million North Americans catch the flu each year. Children are two to three times more likely to get it than adults.

Treatment for the flu

Prescription and over-the-counter medications can help you feel better faster and reduce the duration of the flu by a couple of days. That may not sound like much, but when you’re down with the flu, two days can seem like forever. The cornerstone for recovery probably hasn’t changed a great deal since Hippocrates: Get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. There are other steps you can take to get faster relief—from making sure you have warm, moist air to breathe to sucking on zinc lozenges.

While most people recover from the flu on their own, there can be serious complications. Pneumonia heads the list. At greatest risk are the elderly and those with chronic lung conditions. Pneumonia can be caused by a bacterial infection that strikes your flu-weakened lungs, or even by the flu virus itself. Call your doctor if you aren’t feeling better after five days, or if, after you start feeling better, you have a sudden relapse.

Medications for the flu

To benefit from the latest flu-fighting drugs, call your doctor for a prescription at the first sign of symptoms. Two new antiviral drugs—oseltamivir (Tamiflu), taken orally, and zanamivir (Relenza), a nasal spray—have been proven to reduce the duration of the flu by two days, but only if you start them within 36 hours after symptoms appear. They work against Type A and B flu strains.

Other medications treat specific symptoms:

  • If you have a stuffy nose, your best OTC option is a decongestant containing pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Drixoral).
  • If you have a cough, try cough suppressants that contain dextromethorphan (Robitussin Maximum Strength, Drixoral Cough) to relieve a dry cough, and expectorants containing guaifenesin to loosen and get rid of thick mucus and sputum.
  • If you have a fever, headache, or muscle aches, turn to OTC drugs like aspirin or acetaminophen. For children or adolescents, stick with acetaminophen (Tylenol) only.
  • If you have a sore throat, pick up a throat spray containing phenol (such as Vicks Chloraseptic). This will soothe your aching throat quickly, if only temporarily.

Lifestyle changes

When the flu hits, doing some or all of the following will ease your symptoms and help you feel better:

  • Get bed rest, preferably in a warm room with good ventilation. Your body needs rest to recover.
  • Use a humidifier in your bedroom to help ease congestion. Change the water and filter regularly to prevent mold growth.
  • Take steamy showers and let the warm water stream down your face, or boil a pot of water and inhale the steam. Just let the water cool a bit so it’s not too hot to inhale.
  • Get enough fluids—at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day—to help thin out mucus. Have some chicken soup. It can help provide needed nutrients, and the steam aids in clearing congestion.
  • Soothe your sore throat. Try gargling with salt water (dissolve 1 teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm water) several times a day. For temporary relief, suck on hard candy or throat lozenges.
  • Wash your hands frequently to keep from spreading the flu and its misery around. This is especially important after sneezing, blowing your nose, or touching your face.

Alternative therapies for the flu

The scientific jury is still out on zinc gluconate lozenges, but there is some evidence that they can relieve flu symptoms and help cut the duration of the flu. Suck on one lozenge every four hours. You’ll know it’s working for your particular flu virus if your sore throat feels better after your fourth tablet. The herb echinacea has long been considered an immune-booster, and many believe it can help shorten the duration of the flu. If you use an echinacea product (best taken as a liquid extract or standardized extract in pill form), start taking it at the first sign of the flu, and stop taking it once you feel better.

Questions for your doctor

  • Do you think one of the new prescription antiviral drugs would help me?
  • I have asthma. Should I get the flu vaccine?
  • How do I know when I’ve stopped being contagious?
  • How can I keep from spreading the flu virus to my family?
  • When can I go back to work?

Living with the flu

If you have the flu, here are a few tips to help you take back control:

  • Choose multivitamins carefully. One study of 79 adults age 65 and older found that those who took a daily multivitamin with no trace minerals (tiny amounts of zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, or selenium) received less protection from their flu vaccine. In choosing a multivitamin, look for one that contains these trace minerals, which can help boost immunity. Talk with your doctor about which supplement is best for you.
  • Skip antibiotics. These medications only work against bacteria, and virus causes the flu. However, if you develop a secondary bacterial infection as the result of the flu, you may need antibiotics after all.

Prevention of the flu

If you want to avoid contracting the flu, get the influenza vaccine. An annual flu shot will prevent infection in over 70% of healthy adults. The best time for the shot is between October and mid-November each year, to give your immune system one to two weeks to build immunity to the virus.

It’s important that you be vaccinated if you’re in one of the following categories: adults age 50 and older, especially those in nursing homes; pregnant women who will be in their second or third trimester during flu season; people with HIV or depressed immunity; those with chronic heart, kidney, or lung disease; and people with diabetes or blood disorders such as anemia. Don’t delay. There isn’t always enough flu vaccine to go around.

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Adapted from Know Your Options: The Definitive Guide to Choosing The Best Medical Treatments, Reader

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