Can You Treat The Flu?
If you skip the shot, then you might be out of luck
Illustration by Gloria Diianni
Now that autumn is well underway and fall winds have managed to tug most of the leaves off the trees, we are left with holiday preparations, graying skies and ... the flu season.
It’s not too late to get a flu shot for this year, but if you choose to forgo the vaccine and end up miserable with a fever, aches and hacking cough, what should you do? Load up on zinc? Feed a cold and starve a fever? You can also head to your local drugstore’s cold and flu aisle and peruse the dizzying array of options that promise relief.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the flu, which typically lasts five to 10 days, says Martha Leighton, MS, RN, the chief nursing officer at the Elliot Health System. How long you should ride out symptoms before calling the doctor depends on the severity of your symptoms, your age and your overall health. Influenza tends to be a milder illness in young, nonsmoking adults who do not have underlying disease such as diabetes, so typically they can just wait for the illness to pass.
But in a person who is at high risk of developing complications, the flu can be a different story. Each year “millions get sick from it,” Leighton says, “[and] thousands can die from it.”
High-risk groups include individuals older than 65 or younger than 5, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease. People who face an elevated risk of developing complications from the flu should not delay in calling the doctor when they get sick, Leighton says. Treatment might include antiviral medications such as Tamiflu, available only by prescription. They lessen the severity and the duration of the illness, but are not effective unless started within 48 hours of symptom onset.
Doctors sometimes prescribe antiviral treatment to high-risk individuals who do not show definite signs of having influenza but have been exposed to the influenza virus, says David J. Itkin, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Appledore Medical Group and Portsmouth Regional Hospital. Such a scenario can develop when a worker at a nursing home becomes ill with the flu, for example.
But in the case of pretty much everyone else — those who do not have an elevated risk of developing complications — dealing with the flu is all about symptom control.
When it comes to fever, for instance, remember that a fever is the body’s natural response to infection, and in and of itself is not always dangerous, Itkin says. Although fever in a high-risk person can cause a domino effect of serious health consequences, it does not usually need to be aggressively treated in someone who is normally healthy and unlikely to develop complications.
It is always a good idea, though, to drink plenty of non-caffeinated liquid, wash your hands frequently, cough into your elbow to prevent spreading your germs to others, and use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands.
Also, take over-the-counter treatments such as nasal decongestant sprays and liquids as needed to help ease your symptoms, Leighton says. (Individuals already on medication should check with their doctor prior to taking any new medicine, of course.) But when it comes to supplements such as zinc or vitamin C for prevention or treatment of the flu, Leighton says to save your money. “I can’t say that there’s any point in taking them. I have not seen recommendations in the literature to take [them] as a proven way to prevent the flu or to decrease the symptoms.”
Overall, average people with no underlying health problems who are stricken with the flu should rest and do what makes them feel better. “There’s really nothing on a scientific basis that I can say treats the illness in terms of decreasing the severity, decreasing the duration or decreasing the contagiousness,” Itkin says. So, grab your favorite blanket, and if you find comfort in eating chicken soup, go for it. “I’m certainly a personal fan of chicken soup for totally nonscientific reasons,” Itkin says.
“We have vaccines for prevention, and we have antiviral drugs for treatment,” Itkin says. “Above and beyond that, everything is symptom control.” But by far, when it comes to the flu, the best approach is to avoid getting sick in the first place. “Prevention remains the cornerstone of treatment because of the fact that we have imperfect therapies,” Itkin says. And the best way to prevent the flu, he adds, is vaccination.
Avoid Vaccination Procrastination
The best way to deal with the flu is to avoid getting sick in the first place, and for most people, one of the best methods of protection is the flu vaccine. “The vaccine is just so safe,” says David J. Itkin, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Appledore Medical Group and Portsmouth Regional Hospital. “It is a largely maligned vaccine. There are years in which it is less effective than other years, but even in those years, the vaccine still has value; it is never without effectiveness. And the many downsides to the vaccine that are discussed are largely incorrect and false assumptions.”
“The key to the flu is prevention,” agrees Martha Leighton, MS, RN, the chief nursing officer at the Elliot Health System. “And the number one way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine.” Although the flu vaccine does not counteract all possible strains of flu, if you get sick, it will, at a minimum, lessen the severity and duration of the illness.
For more information, see the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm.