Information about Influenza and Flu Remedies
Influenza, more commonly known as flu, is a viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs that infects people around the world. It’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a mild flu and a cold.
Howeveralthough flu is considered a respiratory ailmentthe virus generally affects the whole body, with symptoms ranging from sore throat and dry cough to fever, body aches, and burning eyes.
The accompanying fever associated with influenza often rises quickly, sometimes to 103°F or higher, and stays there for several days. Even after the fever has subsided, physical exhaustion may last for days afterward.
Flu viruses are highly contagious and they also mutate frequently, so that new variations, or strains, can emerge or spread to a new location every year. Epidemics occur about every four years, and about every decade a flu virus strain appears that is so different from others that a pandemic—a worldwide epidemic—soon follows. Flu viruses are often given names based on their place of assumed origin, for example, the Beijing flu.
Having the flu once does not confer lasting immunity as it does with some childhood viral diseases. The antibodies produced in response to one flu virus don’t provide immunity to a different flu virus that may occur the next year.
Most outbreaks of flu in the United States occur between October and May, with the peak months falling between late December and early March. (In the Southern Hemisphere, flu season occurs from April to September—though in some tropical areas it lasts all year.)
Most of the millions of Americans who contract flu each year may feel extremely uncomfortable while they have it, but they recover within 10 days or so without further problems. However, the virus can lead to further, sometimes serious, complications, including bronchitis.
If the flu spreads from the upper respiratory tract and bronchi to the lungs, secondary bacterial pneumonia can develop. Those at greatest risk for these problems—which can sometimes cause a bout of the flu to be fatal—are the elderly, pregnant women, cancer patients, people with heart disease or respiratory illness, those with diabetes, and those with compromised immune systems.
Symptoms of Flu
Within 72 hours of exposure to a flu virus, the following symptoms develop.
- Rapid onset of moderate to high fever, between 101°F and 103°F, that lasts for three to five days
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Joint pain
- Muscle pains normally located in the back, arms and legs
- Stuffy nose
- Burning sensation in the eyes
- Loss of appetite
What Causes Flu?
You usually catch the flu by being in close proximity to an infected person, who expels droplets containing flu viruses during coughing or sneezing bouts. The droplets travel through the air and can be inhaled by others. You can also catch flu from direct contact—touching hands or kissing—with someone who is infectious, and the viruses can even live for hours in dried mucus that may have been left on objects touched by a flu-infected person’s unwashed hands.
What If You Do Nothing?
Flu is a self-limiting ailment, generally not dangerous, and will normally clear by itself within 10 days or less—though weakness and fatigue can persist for several weeks or longer. However, if you are in a high-risk group and develop flu, you should be aware of possible complications and consider contacting your physician.
Home Remedies for Flu
Flu is a viral infection and antibiotics are ineffective against it. You can help lessen its symptoms at home with the following measures.
- Stay in bed. Bed rest is important to help your body battle the flu, so stay there until your temperature returns to normal and you no longer have body aches and pains.
- Cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing. Discard the tissue in the bin after use.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids prevent dehydration and keep the protective mucous lining of the respiratory system moist so it can fight off the virus. It doesn’t matter if the fluid is hot or cold as long as you drink at least eight glasses a day.
- Avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth. Germs will be spread through this way.
- Be judicious in lowering your temperature. A fever of up to 102°F acts as an antiviral agent, so don’t take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower your fever if it’s in this range. However, if your fever is 103°F or higher, take two acetaminophen or ibuprofen every four hours. (Aspirin should not be taken by anyone age 19 or younger because of its association with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but fast-progressing and often fatal disorder that can be triggered by aspirin.)
- Gargle with warm salt water to relieve the sore throat.
- Use a cough suppressant. A flu infection generally causes a dry, hacking cough, which is unproductive and does not speed recovery. In addition to causing a sore throat, coughing can spread the virus into the lungs. Choose an over-the-counter cough suppressant product that contains dextromethorphan. This medication inhibits coughing by affecting the cough reflex in the brain. Copious amounts of green, yellow, or blood-tinged mucus indicate a possible bacterial infection. Stop all cough suppressants and contact your physician.
- Use saline (salt water) nose drops to loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin in the nose.
- Wash your hands frequently. This will help prevent spreading germs to others.
- Avoid alcohol intake, because it can lead to dehydration.
Everyone Over the Age of 6 Months Should Get a Flu Shot
The most effective tool for fighting a flu virus is immunization with a special vaccine made of inactivated or fragmented flu virus. Because the viruses are inactivated, you cannot get influenza from the vaccine. Instead, a vaccinated person's immune system responds by forming antibodies that can fight the active virus.
Since it takes one to two months after being vaccinated to build up sufficient antibodies, mid-October to mid-November is the best time to get your flu inoculation—well before the start of the annual late-December flu season. Flu vaccine contains the flu viruses expected to cause illness that year, so new batches must be created at the start of each flu season.
People in the following groups are considered at high risk for serious complications from flu, and so should be vaccinated. Those with
- lung disease
- chronic bronchitis
- cystic fibrosis
- heart disease
- chronic kidney disease
- severe anemia
- HIV infection
- or certain other chronic disorders.
People who are likely to be exposed to influenza infections, such as health-care workers, hospital workers, and police officers, should also seriously consider annual vaccinations.
If you are pregnant, however, consult your doctor before getting inoculated.
People allergic to eggs should consult their doctors about flu shots. The inactivated viruses used in flu vaccine are grown on egg embryos, and though these undergo a purification process, some egg protein may be carried over—enough that it may trigger reactions such as hives, allergic asthma, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms.
- Get a flu vaccination in the fall. An annual vaccination is the number-one method of flu prevention, and it is recommended for all everyone 6 months of age and older.
- Avoid unnecessary contact with people who have the flu. The flu virus is highly communicable and can be transmitted by a kiss, grasping a doorknob, or inhaling the virus from a sneeze or cough.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
You should call your doctor if you don’t feel better after the fifth day of your flu, or if you begin to feel better but then suffer a relapse.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Once your doctor diagnoses your condition as the flu, you may be able to benefit from antiviral medications. There are four medications that can be used to treat as well as prevent flu. Two of them, amantadine and rimantadine, work only against the influenza A strains, not the B strains, so they are not meant to be a substitute for a shot of flu vaccine. But they can be used preventively for people who have not been vaccinated or who don’t respond to flu vaccine. When given as a treatment within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, these drugs can reduce the severity and duration of influenza A.
Two newer, more expensive drugs, zanamivir (Relenza), which is a nasal spray, and oseltamivir (Tamiflu), are effective against both influenza A and B viruses. These drugs are approved only for treatment of flu, not as a preventive measure. Like amantadine and rimantadine, they must be used within two days of the onset of symptoms and can provide relief and shorten the duration of flu, but are not an immediate cure.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media