The flu, or influenza, is an infection caused by contagious viruses. These viruses can spread by inhaling tiny droplets that an infected person releases when coughing or sneezing, or by touching a surface contaminated with these fluids and then the eyes, nose or mouth. Symptoms typically occur one to three days after infection and last for a week afterwards. They may include:
- a fever, chills and sweating
- muscular or joint pain, especially in the legs or back
- throat soreness
- a reduced appetite
- a dry cough that may become severe and productive (involve mucous)
- sneezing and a runny nose.
Compared with colds, the flu usually involves more severe symptoms, has a longer duration and can result in serious complications, such as pneumonia.
Self-care tips for the flu
If you develop the flu, consider staying at home, rather than attending school or work, while you’re contagious. You could also try some of the following strategies to help relieve your symptoms:
- Rest if a fever has you feeling weak and fatigued.
- Drink enough water to replenish fluids lost through the sweating that may accompany a fever. Dark-coloured urine may indicate you need to consume more water.
- Take pain relievers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, as directed by your pharmacist or doctor, to help relieve muscular pain or fever. Don’t give aspirin to children under 18 years with the flu as it may result in Reye’s syndrome, a very serious condition affecting the brain and liver.
- Gargle warm water or use sugar-free lozenges to help soothe a sore throat. Some lozenges contain ingredients to numb the throat (so avoid hot drinks immediately afterwards), while others may include honey, herbs or other substances, which coat the throat.
- Use decongestants for a blocked nose. They’re available as pills or saline nose drops or sprays. The nose drops and sprays can act faster than the pills, but work for a shorter duration. However, the pills may have more side-effects. Consult your doctor or pharmacist about the most suitable option for you.
- Avoid smoking as it can irritate virus-affected airways.
- Seek help with tasks if you live alone. If you are a caregiver, consider asking someone you trust for help until you recover.
- Take antibiotics if prescribed by your doctor if you develop a secondary infection or complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. Note that antibiotics will not help treat the flu.
- Take antiviral medication if prescribed by your doctor. The Australian Government provides details of these medications should a flu pandemic occur. Antiviral medications don’t cure the flu, but if taken within one to two days of infection, they may reduce the duration of the illness, symptom severity and risk of serious complications. Consult your doctor for advice.
When to see your doctor
If your flu symptoms cause concern or worsen, consult your doctor as soon as possible. Also see your doctor if you have flu-type symptoms and:
- feel short of breath
- are confused or disoriented
- are vomiting and unable to drink fluids
- are dehydrated
- rapidly feel worse.
The flu is unpleasant, but some basic self-care strategies may help relieve many symptoms. To reduce your risk of infection in the first place, consider whether a flu shot is suitable for you, bearing in mind that the best time to get vaccinated is March to May, ahead of the flu season. For individual advice, consult your doctor.
Article courtesy of HealthLogix (originally published March 2014)