Flu treatment and prevention

Every year, about 5% to 15% of the population gets the flu, a common virus that can cause high fever, sore throat, fatigue, muscle pain, and other symptoms.

People with the flu can spread it to others easily when they cough or sneeze. The flu also can spread by touching infected surfaces or objects, including hand railings, door handles, and counter tops.

The flu is not a virus to be taken lightly.

“It can cause serious complications, including brain damage, damage to the heart — including heart attack — and it can kill,” says Donald Middleton, MD, who is board-certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics and serves as vice president for family practice education at UPMC St. Margaret.

That’s why anyone sick with the flu should stay home. You are contagious one day before your symptoms start and up to a week after becoming sick. If you have the flu, antiviral drugs effective against viruses are the best way to decrease its length and severity.

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Flu Prevention

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. But even that isn’t foolproof. While you can still get the flu if you’ve been vaccinated, your illness will likely be much milder.

Since flu germs can spread by simply touch, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for flu prevention. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are acceptable when you don’t have access to soap and water.

If you’re especially concerned about catching the flu, a facemask may be a good way to keep from breathing contaminated air. A mask can be a good option for teachers, health care workers, and other people who interact closely with others during flu season, which usually lasts from November through April.

Those who spend a long period of time with others in a close and contained space (such as in an airport or auditorium) may want to consider using a mask, too.

When to Get a Flu Shot

It’s best to get vaccinated before the flu begins to spread.

Flu shots — available in the late summer or early fall — can protect you from specific strains of the virus that are chosen before flu season actually begins. In some years, a flu shot may be less effective because the flu strains that were not included in the vaccine are the ones circulating among us.

Because it takes up to two weeks to build up immunity after the vaccination, try to get the shot earlier rather than later. The CDC recommends that people get the flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible.

However, getting a flu shot after flu season has started is better than not getting one at all.

Facts About the Flu Shot

The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get a flu shot every year. But vaccination is especially important for those at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications, such as children under age 5, adults over the age of 65, and pregnant women.

These tips also may be helpful when you’re considering getting the flu shot:

  • While you’re sick: If you’re sick with a cold, you may want to wait to get the shot until you feel better.
  • When you have allergies: Unless you’ve had allergic reactions to flu shots in the past, there’s no reason to avoid getting one. If you have severe egg allergies, talk to your doctor first.
  • When you’re pregnant: The flu shot is recommended for pregnant women at any time during pregnancy. Pregnant women are at higher risk for severe flu and losing their unborn child.
  • After having the flu: Dr. Middleton recommends getting the flu shot even if you’ve already had the flu. The reason? Several strains of flu circulate at the same time. Since you can get still get sick from a different flu strain, the vaccine may eliminate that possibility.

Some people avoid getting the flu shot because they think the shot can give you the flu, but that’s not true. Feeling run down after getting the flu shot is not a sign that you have the flu — it’s a sign that your immune system is ramping up to build antibodies against it.

“Most flu vaccines now are not live, so they can’t cause the flu,” Dr. Middleton adds. “There may be side effects, though, like a headache, slight fever, nose or throat irritation, and achiness for a day or two after receiving the shot. But these symptoms are mild compared to the actual flu.”

Flu Treatment

Treating and recovering from the flu can involve the following:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids and eating a healthy diet.
  • Resting (both taking naps and getting a full night’s sleep).
  • Staying home to help you rest and recover and prevent you from infecting others.
  • Over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may relieve achiness and fever.

If you think you have the flu, see your doctor immediately. Antiviral drugs, which are prescription medicines that can lessen flu symptoms and shorten the time you’re sick, must be started within 48 hours of becoming sick. If you’ve been exposed to the flu, your doctor may recommend an antiviral to prevent you from catching it.

If you think you have the flu, or have questions about flu shots and prevention, contact your primary care doctor or visit a UPMC Urgent Care location. If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1‑855‑646‑8762.


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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