What to do if you have the flu

Friday, January 11, 2013 - 9:22am

CNN) -- You feel worse by the hour. Your joints ache, your head feels heavy, you can't stop coughing, you're freezing even as your temperature keeps climbing, your stomach is upset, even your eyes hurt.

Face it: You have the flu. Now what do you do?

Most flu patients should not go to an emergency room, said Dr. David Zich, internal medicine and emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. They will likely be sent home, as there is very little that can be done for them. A fever as high as 103 degrees Fahrenheit is common in the flu, he said.

Patients with normal flu symptoms should get a lot of rest and take painkillers to help with muscle aches, Zich said.

And while you might not believe it today or tomorrow or the next day, "In five to seven days, you're going to be feeling yourself again," he promised.

But there are scenarios in which going to a hospital is necessary. If a patient is short of breath or can't keep fluids down because of nausea, these are signs of a problem that needs immediate attention, Zich said. Excessive vomiting or sweating from fever can lead to dehydration, which is serious and requires treatment.

The antiviral medications Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) can reduce the severity of symptoms and the length of illness, but the drug has to be taken within 48 hours of the first appearance of symptoms -- you know, the "I will not get sick" phase -- to be most effective.

Antiviral treatment is recommended mostly for people at higher risk of flu complications. That would include people younger than 2 or older than 64; those with chronic diseases; patients with suppressed immune systems; and people of Native American or Alaskan Native heritage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Getting a flu shot while you're healthy won't give you 100% protection, but it is your best bet. And it won't help to take Tamiflu or Relenza as a preventative, because they are designed to treat symptoms, Zich said. All they are likely to do for a healthy person is cause an upset stomach.

-- CNN's Jim Kavanagh and Elizabeth Landau contributed to this report.

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