Every winter, despite typically easy access to flu vaccines and endless pleas from healthcare professionals to take precautions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 9 million and 45 million Americans will experience flu symptoms. Caused by the influenza virus, those symptoms can include fatigue, sore throat, fever or chills, stuffy or runny nose, headaches, muscle and body aches, ear infections, and even vomiting or diarrhea.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans will require hospitalization each flu season, and tens of thousands, usually the very old or very young, will die as a result of their illness. Last year, CDC estimates that up to 61,000 Americans died from severe flu. However, most people who get the flu will experience mild to moderate symptoms that last for about five to seven days.
How to get over the flu
If you find yourself among that group, try the following flu remedies to help ease your symptoms, speed your recovery, and keep from spreading the virus to others.
1. Get plenty of rest
When you come down with the flu, there’s a good chance you won’t feel like getting out of bed. If that’s the case, listen to your body. One of the most effective and simplest home remedies for the flu is to get as much rest as possible. Rest helps the body fight infections, and a healthy sleep cycle—getting eight hours of sleep a night—helps boost your immune system and allows it to work as well as it can.
Rest is especially important if your symptoms are moderate to severe, but if you have mild symptoms and you feel okay, “you can really do whatever you feel up to doing,” according to Amy Cram, MD, a pediatrician with Northeast Medical Group. “If you want to work from home, or if your kid feels like going and playing at a playground, as long as you’re not making other people sick, you can do that.”
2. Stay well hydrated
“When you have a fever, you have more fluid loss,” says Dr. Cram. “Your body will require more fluids, so you want to be conscious of that and always have water with you.” If you’re eating normally and ingesting salts and sugars through your diet, water is the best way to hydrate, but if you aren’t, consider drinking other fluids that contain electrolytes. “The times you might need Gatorade—or Pedialyte for a kid—is if you’re really not eating anything. Then your body doesn’t hold water in as well. That’s why the electrolytes are helpful.”
Other fluids that can help you hydrate while soothing sore throats and upset stomachs include fruit juices, herbal teas, ginger teas, hot water, and, yes, even chicken soup, which can help break up mucus. “Mucus coats surfaces in the body and is a barrier to the movement of air and other fluids,” says Steven Hirschfeld, MD, Ph.D, a professor of pediatrics with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “Warm liquids help to dilute mucus produced while you’re sick.” But avoid drinks like coffee that contain caffeine, as they can actually cause you to become more dehydrated.
Another way to deal with mucus buildup is by using steam or water vapor. If the air in your home is dry, a humidifier or vaporizer producing moist air can help soothe scratchy throats and dilute mucus. If you don’t have a humidifier, just sitting in a hot, steamy shower for a few minutes at a time can help you feel better.
Some people also get relief from boiling water, draping a towel over their heads like a tent and inhaling the steam. Many doctors recommend adding a drop or two of eucalyptus oil or peppermint oil to the water to enhance its mucus-countering abilities. Ideally, you want to use purified water rather than plain tap water, which can contain impurities, and ask your doctor before using products like neti pots and saline rinses as not all providers support their use.
4. Make yourself comfortable
To help reduce a fever and treat the body and muscle aches associated with the flu, most people can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like Advil, Motrin (ibuprofen), Tylenol (acetaminophen), and Aleve (naproxen). However, “you don’t want to use aspirin with the flu because there can be other complications,” says Dr. Hirschfeld. This is especially true for children under 18 with flu-like symptoms, as taking aspirin while sick can cause a dangerous side effect in kids called Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but serious illness that can affect the brain and damage the liver. Overall, one should be careful with the use of NSAIDs as they can affect kidneys.
5. Take prescribed antiviral drugs
While most people’s immune systems are well equipped to fight off infections, others run a higher risk of developing serious and potentially dangerous flu symptoms. This includes people over 65, pregnant women, young children and people with certain other medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. When these people get the flu, doctors will often prescribe antiviral medications like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Xofluza (baloxavir) within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms appearing. Antivirals can help clear the flu virus from the body more quickly and shorten the duration of flu symptoms.
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6. Consider natural flu remedies
“There’s evidence that if you take elderberry early on with the flu, it can shorten the course of the symptoms,” says Dr. Cram. Available at health food stores in syrups, gummies, lozenges, pills, and teas, and rich in antioxidants, elderberry-based supplements can help boost the immune system and pose very little risk of adverse side effects. However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, elderberry is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Doctors disagree on the effectiveness of other natural remedies like probiotics, echinacea, zinc and vitamin C. Foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E can support the immune system and may help prevent the flu or the common cold, but there is little evidence that they do much to reduce flu symptoms or speed recovery. Probiotics, a type of “good bacteria,” can be beneficial to overall health, but little is known about their long-term safety. Zinc taken orally may help treat cold symptoms, but it can cause nausea and other gastrointestinal problems. Vitamin C and echinacea, on the other hand, are generally considered safe, but you should still check with your doctor before using them.
7. Treat your symptoms
One of the most common and unpleasant symptoms of the flu is a sore throat. Flu and cold medicine in the form of cough drops, cough syrups, lozenges, and even hard candy can help soothe sore throats and break up mucus. Decongestants, such as Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), nasal sprays, such as Afrin (oxymetazoline), and expectorants, such as Mucinex (guaifenesin), can also help break up mucus and relieve congestion. Throat sprays, such as Cepacol (dyclonine) or Chloraseptic (phenol), can help numb the throat and decrease pain from a sore throat.
RELATED: How to treat a sore throat
Gargling with warm salt water can help break up mucus and ease stuffy ears, and holding a warm compress to your forehead and nose can help relieve headache and sinus pain and decrease nasal congestion.
8. Avoid other people and practice good hygiene
Although it won’t do anything to ease your symptoms or help you get over the flu faster, it’s important to minimize contact with other people while you’re sick and for at least 24 hours after flu symptoms go away in order to stop the spread of the disease. The flu is highly contagious and can spread easily through the air.
If you have the flu or are around someone who does, you should also make sure to wash your hands frequently, especially before eating or touching your face and be sure to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. “The goal is to reduce the efficiency of the virus spreading from person to person,” says Dr. Hirschfeld.
Of course, the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year. According to the CDC, studies show that flu vaccinations can reduce the risk of the flu by 40-60% in the overall population.
9. Seek medical attention
While the flu generally can be treated at home, you should consult your healthcare provider within 48 hours after flu symptoms appear or you develop a fever higher than 100 degrees. For more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing up blood, chest pain, or trouble with balance, walking, or sitting up, seek immediate medical care from your doctor or get yourself to a hospital emergency room. You should also seek immediate medical care if you have another serious illness and develop any flu symptoms.