11 Things You Should Do at the First Sign of the Flu
How you take care of yourself when flu symptoms start can make a difference in how long the symptoms of the virus last.
Take the flu seriously
Influenza—not to be confused with the common cold—is a serious disease, causing 12,200 hospitalizations and killing up to 3,500 people in Canada each year. The severity of the disease varies from year to year but one thing is for certain: You have to take influenza seriously. And that starts with knowing what to do as soon as you start feeling the tell-tale symptoms of the flu.
First, try to prevent it by getting a flu shot
“The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City-based internist and gastroenterologist. While a flu shot will help decrease your chances of getting the flu it is still possible to contract the virus, so make sure to take extra precautions in addition to getting vaccinated, especially if you start to feel the symptoms associated with the flu. In general, flu shots are a way to help reduce symptoms and hopefully prevent hospitalizations and deaths, rather than a guarantee that people won’t get sick at all.
How to know if you’re getting the flu
Dr. Sonpal says the first signs of flu can include feeling feverish, having chills, a cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue, and vomiting or diarrhea (though the last two tend to happen more in children than adults). If you have one or more of these symptoms talk to your doctor to see if you have the flu and follow these early treatment tips. (Psst: Here’s how to get rid of a stuffy nose.)
Wash your hands
If you are starting to feel like you might have a cold or the flu, washing your hands can reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others. “This is an easy way to stop the spreading of germs,” Dr. Sonpal says. In fact, a study published in Medicine found that good hand washing hygiene significantly reduced the risk of getting the common cold or flu. (Check out what else could happen if you don’t wash your hands.)
Stop exercising and try not to over-exert yourself, recommends Dr. Sonpal. Trying to keep up with your regular routine will only dehydrate you and make your symptoms worse. “Remember there is no quick fix for the flu, and many people don’t feel completely back to normal for about three weeks,” Dr. Sonpal adds. (Psst: Learn what happens when you work out when you’re sick.)
Don’t ask for antibiotics
“Antibiotics don’t kill viruses,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Although many people believe their favourite antibiotic will cure any illness they have, that just isn’t the case.” If you catch your flu within the first 48 hours of infection, your doctor may prescribe Tamiflu, an antiviral medication that can shorten the lifespan of your flu; however, says Dr. Sonpal, in most patients it only saves about one day of illness. (Psst: Here’s what you should ask your doctor before taking antibiotics.)
Try over-the-counter pain relievers
What will ease your flu symptoms are OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, especially if you have a fever. It can help reduce your symptoms and provide flu relief. Dr. Sonpal says to use these as directed on the label, as getting the proper dosage is key to relieving body aches, headaches, and pain symptoms related to the flu. (Check out these home remedies for pain relief.)
Get more sleep
Sleeping helps lessen the effects of the flu and helps you recover faster. It’s not just the physical rest — giving your brain a break could help enhance your defenses, according to an animal study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Researchers found that a protein produced by the brain during sleep helped speed up the recovery of mice with influenza. (Also, here are beauty tips for looking good when you’re sick.)
Make sure not to overdo it on the vitamins
It’s fine to continue taking your daily multivitamin if you feel up to it but be aware that taking too many vitamins can have negative effects. “Ultra-high doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea,” says Dr. Sonpal. “Although a few studies suggest vitamin C might shorten the duration of a cold, other studies contradict this, and no major studies show benefit for influenza.” Research suggests that zinc may speed recovery.
Fuel with food
“If you are able to eat, stock up on foods that can help boost your immune system,” recommends Dr. Sonpal. This includes yogurt, fruits like blueberries and vegetables like broccoli. For those feeling nauseous, chicken soup is another option, Dr. Sonpal adds. “Chicken soup can help reduce inflammation, clear up mucus, and ease congestion,” he says. (Also, here are foods high in vitamin C that may help you feel better.)
Water is always best to keep you hydrated and help loosen up mucus, but any liquid without caffeine will do, says Dr. Sonpal. If you’re starting to have water fatigue he recommends Gatorade, ginger ale, diluted juice, broth, or decaffeinated tea. (Here’s how long the common cold lasts.)
Skip the coffee
Coffee and tea with caffeine can dehydrate you, says Dr. Sonpal. Dehydration may make your symptoms feel worse and your sickness last longer. And while this probably goes without saying, alcohol has the same effect: Though it may be tempting, that hot toddy isn’t going to help you feel better. (Have a sore throat? These remedies could help.)
Cancel social engagements
Stay home from work, school, and all social events. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you steer clear of others for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Flu symptoms can start anywhere from one to two days after the virus has entered the body, meaning you could be spreading it to others before you even realize you have it. This makes it even more crucial to reschedule events the moment you start to feel off. (Too busy to get sick? Here’s what you need to do.)
Stock up on hand sanitizer
Even if you isolate yourself, chances are friends and family will come by to check on you. Protect them and you (from getting a new bug) by making sure they remember to wash their hands—or at the very least use hand sanitizer, Dr. Sonpal says. It’s a good idea to have a couple of bottles of hand sanitizer prominently placed around the house so your guests can disinfect and prevent carrying flu germs to others.
Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD
Next, check out how to deal with common cold symptoms and move on with your life.