Understanding the Flu: How Do I Know if I Have It?
Influenza is diagnosed on the basis of symptoms that include fever, headache, muscle aches and respiratory symptoms. Your doctor may take a nasal or throat culture or blood test to rule out the possibility of other ailments or, if public health officials are gathering statistics on an influenza outbreak, to identify the specific viral strain.
What Are the Treatments?
Young, healthy people probably don't need to be treated for influenza. It will simply run its course in a few days. Over-the-counter medications for symptoms may be helpful. The very young and old and those with other medical problems may benefit from being treated with the newer antiviral medications. Even the young and healthy may benefit from these drugs when they are started within the first two days. All ages would benefit from an annual flu vaccine when the nation's supplies are adequate.
If you have the flu, doctors usually advise eating nourishing food, resting, and, most importantly, drinking plenty of fluids. Fever causes you to lose a lot of fluid, so you need to replace what is lost by drinking more. If you're not eating, then taking your fluid in the form of soup may be a good idea. While their sugar content is high, sports drinks that contain electrolytes are also an option. For most people, plain water is usually best or a broth type of soup. It's likely you won't feel like doing much activity, so staying in bed is fine. Get up when you feel you can.
Some over-the-counter medicines may make you feel better. These include decongestants, antihistamines, and pain medicines. Keep in mind that these products may be harmful, particularly for those with heart disease, high blood pressure, or other respiratory problems. Cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under 4.
Over-the-counter analgesics, or pain medicines, also suppress fevers, which could prolong the course of the infection. However, take them if you feel very uncomfortable. Older people and those with heart and lung disease may also need to suppress the fever to reduce the strain on their heart and lungs. Stick with non-aspirin products, because aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal complication that mostly affects children and adolescents.
There are antiviral medicines, as well. To treat and prevent both influenza A and B, there is zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Relenza is inhaled like an asthma medication.
Secondary infections may also need to be treated. If you find that your symptoms aren't clearing up or seem to be worsening, you may have a secondary infection. Influenza makes everyone more susceptible to other infections. See your doctor for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic mixture, is very popular in Europe as a flu remedy. Studies have shown that this treatment may reduce the duration of an illness and the severity of symptoms, but there is little evidence for preventive claims. Other homeopathic preparations have shown some success in treating upper respiratory infections. Be sure your medical doctor knows of everything you are taking -- standard medicine and alternatives.