How to Treat the Flu

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a viral infection that mainly attacks the respiratory system (your nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs).[1] Although in most people the illness may last only a week or two,[2] the flu can be very dangerous, especially for children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems or chronic medical conditions.[3] Getting a flu vaccine every year is the best way to prevent getting the flu, but if you are sick, you will learn how to treat your symptoms.[4]


EditIdentifying the Flu

  1. Recognize flu symptoms. Before you can effectively treat the flu, make sure that’s what you actually have. Flu symptoms are similar to everyday cold symptoms, but they are more severe and occur more rapidly. They may last two to three weeks.[5] The following are common symptoms of the flu:[6]
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    • Cough, often severe.
    • Sore throat, and a lot of wheezing.
    • Fever above 100°F (38°C).
    • Headaches and/or body aches.
    • Runny or stuffy nose.
    • Chills and sweats.
    • Fatigue or weakness.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Loss of appetite.
    • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (more common in young children).
  2. Distinguish between the flu and a cold. While the flu shows some similar symptoms to the common cold, cold symptoms develop more slowly and follow a predictable pattern of escalation and retreat.[7] Symptoms of the common cold usually last less than a week or two and include:[8]
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    • Mild cough.
    • Low-grade or no fever.
    • Slight aches or a headache.
    • Congestion.
    • Runny or stuffy nose.
    • Itchy or sore throat.
    • Sneezing.
    • Watery eyes.
    • Mild or no fatigue.
  3. Distinguish between the flu and “stomach flu.” What’s commonly called “stomach flu” is actually not influenza at all, but a type of viral gastroenteritis. The flu affects your respiratory system, while “stomach flu” affects your intestines and is usually a less serious illness. Common symptoms of viral gastroenteritis include:[9]
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    • Watery diarrhea.
    • Abdominal cramping and pain.
    • Bloating.
    • Nausea and/or vomiting.
    • Mild or occasional headaches and/or body aches.
    • Low-grade fever.
    • Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually only last a day or two but can last as long as 10 days.
  4. Know when to seek emergency medical treatment. In extreme cases, the flu can cause severe dehydration or symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. Seek immediate medical treatment if you or your child is experiencing the following symptoms:[10]
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    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
    • Chest pain or pressure.
    • Severe, persistent vomiting.
    • Dizziness or confusion.
    • Blueish skin tone or purplish lips.
    • Seizures.
    • Signs of dehydration (e.g., dry mucous membranes, lethargy, sunken eyes, decreased urination or very dark urine).
    • Severe headache or neck pain or stiffness.
    • Flu-like symptoms that improve, then return with more severity.

EditTreating Flu Symptoms with Natural Remedies

  1. Get some rest. Sometimes it’s possible to keep working or going to school with a cold, but when you have the flu, it’s important to rest. Take a few days off to give your body time to recover.[11]
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    • Since the flu is contagious, staying home is as considerate as it is necessary for your recovery.
    • You may experience congestion with the flu. Elevating your head with an extra pillow or sleeping in a recliner can make it easier to breathe at night.
  2. Stay hydrated. Having a fever causes dehydration, so it’s important to drink more fluids than you normally would, to combat the illness.[12]
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    • Drink hot fluids like tea or warm water with lemon. These soothe your throat and clear your sinuses while hydrating you.
    • Avoid caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and soda. Choose fluids that will restore your body’s nutrients and minerals, not deplete them.
    • Drink hot soup. You may experience nausea and a lack of appetite during the flu illness. Drinking hot soup or broth is a good way to get food into your system without upsetting your stomach.[13] Studies have shown that chicken soup can actually mitigate inflammation in your respiratory tract, so if you’re feeling well enough, eating a bowl or two could really help.[14]
    • If you have also been vomiting, you may have an electrolyte imbalance. Use an oral rehydration solution such as Ceralyte or a sports drink containing electrolytes to replenish your body.[15]
  3. Take a vitamin C supplement. Vitamin C is crucial for supporting your body’s immune health. Studies suggest that a “megadose” of vitamin C can help relieve cold and flu symptoms.[16]
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    • Take 1000mg per hour for the first six hours as soon as symptoms appear. Then take 1000mg three times daily. Do not continue to take extremely high doses of vitamin C after you feel better, as vitamin C toxicity is rare but can happen.[17]
    • Orange juice is a good source of natural vitamin C but cannot provide a megadose.[18]
    • Talk to your child’s doctor before giving high doses of vitamin C to your child.
  4. Clear mucus from your nose often. When you’re congested, it’s important to clear your breathing passage of mucus often, to prevent getting a sinus or ear infection. Clear mucus in the following ways:
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    • Blow your nose. It’s simple, but effective: blow your nose as often as it clogs to keep your breathing passage free.
    • Use a neti pot. Neti pots are a natural method for clearing your nasal passages.
    • Take a hot bath. The steam from the water helps loosen the mucus.
    • A humidifier or vaporizer in your room may make breathing easier.[19]
    • Use nasal saline sprays. You can also make your own nasal saline sprays or drops.
  5. Use a heating pad. The application of heat helps relieve the aches and pains that come with flu sickness. Use an electric heating pad or fill up a hot water bottle and lay it on your chest or back, wherever you feel pain. Just be sure not to have it too hot that it burns your skin or to leave it on too long. Never go to sleep with a heating pad or hot water bottle on your body.
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  6. Relieve fever symptoms with a cool cloth. You can relieve the discomfort of fever symptoms by placing a cool, damp washcloth on your skin wherever you feel feverish.[20] It can also help soothe sinus congestion when applied to the forehead and around the eyes.
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    • A reusable gel pad can be found at most drug stores and can also help you feel cooler.
    • To cool a child down with a fever over 102°F or a child that is very uncomfortable with a fever, apply cooled damp towels to the forehead to bring down the body temperature.
  7. Gargle with salt water. A simple salt water solution can relieve a sore throat, which is associated with the flu. Mix together one tsp of salt with one cup of warm water.
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    • Gargle for a minute or so. Then spit the water out. Do not swallow the saltwater gargle.
  8. Try a herbal remedy. There is only limited scientific evidence for most herbal treatments for the flu. However, you may find some relief from one of these remedies. You should consult with your doctor before taking any herbal remedies if you take any medications, have any chronic medical conditions, or are treating a child.[21]
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    • Take 300mg of Echinacea three times daily. Echinacea may help shorten the duration of your symptoms. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, people taking immunosuppressant drugs, and people who allergic to ragweed should not use echinacea.
    • Take 200mg of American ginseng daily. American ginseng (which is not the same as Siberian or Asian ginseng) may help make flu symptoms milder.[22]
    • Take 4 tablespoons per day of Sambucol, an elderberry extract. Sambucol has performed well in shortening the duration of the flu. You can also brew an elderberry tea by steeping 3-5g of dried elderflower in 8 ounces of boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain and drink three times daily.[23]
  9. Try a eucalyptus steam treatment. A eucalyptus steam treatment can help soothe a cough or congestion. Add 5 to 10 drops of eucalyptus oil to two cups of boiling water. Allow to boil for one minute, then remove from the heat.[24]
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    • Move the pot to a stable surface, such as a table or countertop.
    • Cover your head with a clean towel and place your head over the pot. Keep your face at least 12 inches away from the water to avoid burns.
    • Inhale the steam for 10 to 15 minutes.
    • You can use peppermint or spearmint oil instead of the eucalyptus if you prefer. The active ingredient in mint, menthol, is an excellent decongestant.
    • Do not consume any essential oil internally. Many are toxic when ingested.

EditTreating Flu Symptoms with Medicinal Remedies

  1. Buy Over-The-Counter medicine to treat symptoms. The most common flu symptoms can be effectively treated with a medication you can pick up at your local drugstore. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a medication that is right for you especially if you have medical issues such as high blood pressure, liver, or kidney problems, take other medications, or are pregnant. Keep in mind these will only treat symptoms and are not antiviral drugs.[25]
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    • Flu aches and pains can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin, or a fever and pain reducer like Tylenol (acetaminophen). Be sure to check the package for the recommended dosage. Aspirin should not be given to children under 18.
    • Take antihistamines and decongestants to treat congestion.[26]
    • Take expectorants and cough suppressants to treat a cough. If your cough is dry and hacking, a cough suppressant that contains dextromethorphan is the best choice. However, if your cough is bringing up mucus, an expectorant containing guaifenesin is a better option to make your cough more productive.[27]
    • Be careful to avoid acetaminophen overdose. Many medications contain the same active ingredients, so read labels carefully.[28] Follow the dosing directions on the packaging and do not exceed the recommended dose.[29]
  2. Give children the correct dosage. Use children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen for children. Follow the directions on the packaging for the correct dose. You can alternate between acetaminophen and ibuprofen if your child’s fever does not respond to only one, but make sure you keep track of when you give each medication.
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    • You can also consult the guidelines at MedlinePlus, which is run by the US National Library of Medicine. They have guidelines for ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
    • Do not give ibuprofen to children who have been vomiting or are dehydrated.[30]
    • Never give a child younger than 18 aspirin. It increases the risk of developing Reye syndrome.[31]
  3. Take prescription medication. If you decide to go to the doctor to get help treating your illness, you may be prescribed one of the following medications, depending on what strains of the flu are circulating. These medications can help reduce symptoms and shorten the illness if they’re taken within 48 hours:[32][33]
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    • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is taken orally. Tamiflu is the only flu medication approved by the FDA for use in children younger than 1.[34]
    • Zanamivir (Relenza) is inhaled. It can be taken by people aged 7 years or older.[35] It should not be used in people who have asthma or certain other lung problems.
    • Peramivir (Rapivab) is administered via IV. It can be used by people 18 or older.[36]
    • Amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine) were used to treat influenza A, but many strains of flu (including H1N1) are now resistant to them and these medications are not commonly prescribed.[37]
  4. Understand that antibiotics will not treat the flu. Influenza is a viral illness. If you need them, your doctor will prescribe antiviral medications such as Tamiflu. Do not take antibiotics for the flu.[38]
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    • Occasionally, you may have a bacterial infection alongside the flu, in which case your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. Take medicines as prescribed.
    • Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them will cause the bacteria that are not killed to become resistant to drug treatment, which makes them much harder to kill with medication. Never take antibiotics unless you have been prescribed them, and ensure that you take the full course of antibiotics prescribed.[39]

EditPreventing the Flu

  1. Get vaccinated before flu season. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitor global health trends and statistics to develop a vaccine for the strains of flu virus that seem most dangerous that year.[40] Flu vaccines are offered at doctor’s offices, health clinics, and even drug stores. They don’t guarantee a season free of flu sickness, but they protect against many different strains of the virus and reduce your chances of getting the flu by about 60%. If you need to you can get 2 or 3. It lowers your chance of getting the flu. But don’t take a bunch of shots because that can make you sick or cause another medical problem or kill you from over-dose ([41] The flu vaccine is available via injection or nasal spray. Injection is more helpful and some doctors stopped using nasal spray but you can always ask![42]
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    • In the US, most cases of flu occur between October and May, peaking in January or February.[43]
    • You may have mild symptoms, such as soreness, headache, or low-grade fever after getting the vaccine. This is your body’s reaction to getting to know the viral strain, so it can recognize it and defend you if you come into contact with it during flu season. The vaccine does not cause the flu.[44]
  2. Talk to your doctor before getting the vaccine if you have certain conditions. In general, all people over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine unless they have contraindications.[45] If you have any of the following, you should talk with your doctor before getting vaccinated:[46][47]
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    • A severe allergy to chicken eggs or gelatin
    • A history of severe reactions to a flu vaccination
    • A moderate or severe illness with fever (you can get the vaccine once your fever has resolved)
    • A history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)
    • A chronic condition like lung disease, heart disease, kidney or liver disorders, etc (only for nasal spray vaccine)
    • Asthma (only for nasal spray vaccine)
  3. Choose between the flu shot and the nasal spray vaccine. The flu vaccine is available as an injection and as a nasal spray. Most people can choose either, but you should take into account things such as your age and health conditions when deciding.[48]
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    • Also, keep in mind that flu vaccines are made new each year, so their effectiveness will vary. The nasal vaccine may be especially susceptible to this. Talk to your doctor to find out which vaccine is best for you.
    • The flu shot is approved for children 6 months and up, as well as pregnant women and people with most chronic medical conditions.
    • People who are younger than 65 should not get a high-dose flu shot.[49] People younger than 18 or older than 64 should not get the intradermal flu shot, which is injected into the skin instead of into the muscle.[50] Children younger than 6 months cannot get a flu shot.
    • The nasal spray vaccine is approved for people between the ages of 2 and 49.[51]
    • Children younger than 2 and adults over age 50 cannot use the nasal spray vaccine. Children aged 2 to 17 on a long-term aspirin regimen cannot use the nasal spray vaccine. Children ages 2 to 4 with asthma should not use the nasal spray vaccine.
    • Pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should not get the nasal spray vaccine. Caretakers for people whose immune systems are extremely compromised should not get the nasal spray vaccine, or stay away from those persons for seven days after vaccination.
    • You should not take the nasal spray vaccine if you have taken antiviral drugs for the flu within the past 48 hours.
  4. Take the flu seriously. The flu is highly contagious, and it can cause serious medical complications. Thanks to vaccination, death rates from flu have been falling steadily for decades, from 40 people per 100,000 in the 1940s to 0.56 per 100,000 in the 1990s. Still, it’s important to seek medical treatment if you display the symptoms of flu, and do your best to avoid contagious situations.
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    • The 2009 H1N1 pandemic caused more than 2,000 deaths worldwide. The CDC believes that another such pandemic is possible, particularly if people do not get adequately vaccinated.[52][53]
    • High fevers alone can be quite dangerous. Your body isn’t built to handle temperatures of 106F or higher for longer periods of time, and as such, the proteins in your brain could break down, causing temporary or permanent brain damage.[54]
  5. Practice good hygiene. Washing your hands frequently, especially after returning from a public outing, is a good way to keep yourself from catching the flu. Carry antibacterial hand wipes to use when you find yourself in a place without a sink and soap.[55]
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    • Use an alcohol-based hand rub or soap.
    • Avoid touching your face, especially your nose, mouth, and eyes.
    • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use a tissue if you have one. If you don’t, sneeze or cough into your elbow, but not your hands — you’re less likely to spread germs this way.[56]
  6. Keep your body in good general health. Eating well, getting your body’s daily recommended dose of vitamins and nutrients, and keeping in shape with exercise is a good defense against the flu. If it does strike, your body will be well-equipped to deal with the illness.
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    • Getting enough vitamin D may play a role in preventing the flu. Studies suggest that a daily supplement of 1200 IUs per day can help prevent influenza A.[57] Good sources include sunshine, fatty fish such as salmon, and vitamin A and D enriched milk.[58]
    • Studies also show that sleeping and eating at the same time everyday can help your body better defend itself.[59]


  • Sleep with a pillow or two under your head to help relieve nasal congestion.
  • A homeopathic method is to ingest one clove of garlic, finely chopped and mixed into approximately four tablespoons of yogurt, each morning and each evening, for three consecutive days. It quickly improves symptoms of nausea and loose stools.
  • Make tea and add honey and/or lemon juice. While it’s cooling down, inhale the steam. Doing this helps congestion and the tea, when you drink it, helps your throat get less sore, killing two birds with one stone!


  • Call your doctor if your flu symptoms include a fever over for more than two days, chest pain, difficulty breathing or fainting. You should also call if your symptoms do not improve within 10 days or if they worsen significantly during that time.

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