influenza

5 things to do (and 5 not to) if you have the flu

Jan. 14, 2013 at 3:45 PM ET

It may have started with a cough or a sneeze, or you may feel like someone beat you with a stick. Achy muscles, respiratory symptoms and a sudden fever all point to influenza and you – or your child – are down for the count. Here are five things you can do, and five that are probably a waste of time.

ANTIVIRALS: There are two prescription drugs on the market that work against influenza. Tamiflu is a pill, and Relenza is an inhaled powder, and both can cut about a day or two off the time spent in bed with flu. They can also keep patients from getting dangerously ill. Both must be taken within a day or so of when symptoms start to be effective.

ANALGESICS: Pain and fever relieving medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen – sold under brand names such as Motrin, Advil, Tylenol and others – can reduce fever and help with muscle aches. Patients with asthma, high blood pressure or other chronic conditions should check with a doctor before taking them. Children should never be given aspirin – it can cause a deadly reaction called Reyes Syndrome.

FLUIDS: Dehydration is a special risk when people are ill and feverish. The Health and Human Services Department recommends plenty of clear fluids such as water, broth or sports drinks. If you have an upset stomach, try sipping through a straw. The really sick may suck on small ice cubes or ice pops. And drinking can soothe a sore throat.

OVER-THE-COUNTER REMEDIES: Decongestants and antihistamines can help the most annoying symptoms of a cold or the flu – the runny or congested nose and some cough caused by post-nasal drip. Antihistamines can also help many people sleep. Cough drops or hard candies can soothe a scratchy throat, although they should not be given to young children who might choke. Cough remedies containing the suppressant dextromethorphan may help but most contain too little to do much good.

STAY HOME AND REST: If you have symptoms of flu or a bad cold, or another virus such as norovirus, the best thing you can do for yourself and others is stay home and rest. You won’t spread your germs that way and you’re unlikely to be effective at work or school, anyway. And if you’re caring for someone who is infected, keeping the patient confined to one room and keeping that room clean can help prevent the spread of infection. Humidifiers or a steamy shower may help people breathe more easily. And gargling with warm salt water can also soothe a sore throat.

Not-so-useful approaches

HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS: There’s little evidence any of them work. Studies show ecinachea doesn’t prevent colds or flu or even help treat symptoms. There is mixed evidence for ginseng. One problem with testing herbal supplements is that they come in different formulations, sometimes even using different species of plants. One exception: There is a little evidence that fresh garlic might help prevent colds, and there’s little harm in eating it.

ZINC: There was a theory that zinc supplements might boost the immune system, but the Food and Drug Administration recommends against using zinc in the nasal gel form because it can cause a permanent loss of smell. One Canadian study published in May suggests that zinc supplements might help reduce the severity of the common cold, but again, researchers say different formulations make it a difficult theory to test.

COUGH SYRUP: Many over-the-counter cough syrups contain guaifenesin, an expectorant, but the American Lung Association cautions that there is no evidence at all that it helps. The American College of Chest Physicians recommends against using any cough syrup.

COLD REMEDIES FOR KIDS: The Food and Drug Administration advises not giving any over-the-counter cold, flu and cough remedies to children under 2, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America says don’t give them to children under 4. The FDA persuaded drug companies to voluntarily take over-the-counter cough and cold drugs for infants off the market in in 2007.

VITAMINS: Americans love taking vitamins, but it's possible to get too much. Ultra-high doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea. Although a few studies suggest vitamin C might shorten the duration of a cold, others contradict this, and no major studes show benefit for influenza. Studies also show no benefit to vitamin E. 

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