If you're one of those people who brag, come flu season, that you "never, ever get sick," be aware: The odds may catch up to you. Every year, about 5% to 20% of U.S. residents get influenza, according to estimates from the CDC.
Taking certain antiviral drugs within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms can shorten the duration of the flu, but that involves recognizing you have the flu, getting in touch with your doctor, and going to the pharmacist before the 48 hours is up.
Just in case your number is up this year, consider assembling a simple home care kit for help in surviving the flu. If you are not only in denial but too busy to shop for a flu survival kit, take heart: it might just be an assembly job. "Most of the supplies are routine medicines you have in your medicine cabinet anyway," says Jim King, MD, a family physician in Selmer, Tenn., and president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Here’s a short list from King and other flu experts of what you may need to treat the most common flu symptoms: fever, headache, cough, muscle aches, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose.
- Fever and pain relievers
- Cough syrups and drops
- Nasal sprays
(Some caveats: Before giving any medicine to children; consult their pediatrician. Cold and cough syrups can be dangerous especially when given to children under 2 years old. Adults with chronic problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease should check in with their doctor or pharmacist before taking any flu remedy, too.)
Fever and Pain Relievers for Flu Symptoms
What to Get: Choose ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or naproxen (Aleve), suggests Richard Roberts, MD, JD, a family physician in Belleville, Wis., and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
What They Do, How to Use Them: All three types of medicine help reduce fever and pain from muscle aches that can accompany flu. Most people under-dose themselves with these medicines, Roberts says. For generally healthy adults with flu, he suggests alternating Tylenol with either ibuprofen and naproxen throughout the day (but not alternating between ibuprofen and naproxen, since they work the same way.)
Pay heed to the manufacturers' warnings about maximum doses, says Vibhuti Arya, PharmD, a resident at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, Minneapolis, and a media spokeswoman for the American Pharmacists Association. Never take a higher dose without checking first with your doctor or pharmacist. (Higher doses than what is recommended by the manufacturer may be acceptable for a short period of time, but only with your doctor’s approval, she says.)
Cough Remedies for the Flu
What to Get: Two types of cough syrups are useful for surviving the flu: an expectorant (which contains the ingredient guaifenesin) and a suppressant (which contain the ingredient dextromethorphan).
What They Do, How to Use Them: Expectorant cough remedies should be used when you have chest congestion and are trying to cough it out, says Jonathan Arroyo, PharmD, the pharmacy manager at Texas Road Pharmacy in Manalapan, N.J., and a member of the American Pharmacists Association. When you are taking these cough syrups, be sure to drink eight glasses or more of water and other fluids a day, he says. The fluids help clear congestion.
Suppressant cough remedies are best to use when the cough is dry and you have no mucus, Arroyo says. (But if you are trying to sleep, and the cough prevents you from rest, Arroyo sometimes suggests taking a suppressant cough syrup before bed.)
Menthol cough drops can help soothe the throat soreness. They can be used with expectorants, Arroyo says.
Nasal Sprays for Stuffy Noses
What to Get: Saline nasal sprays (nonmedicated) and oxymetazoline (medicated) nasal sprays such as Afrin or NeoSnyephrine.
What They Do, How to Use Them: Saline nasal sprays can help clear out the nose and the stuffiness that can accompany flu. "It might help you breathe better," Arroyo says.
Nasal saline sprays can be used even a couple times an hour, says Roberts, the family physician.
Medicated nasal sprays can be used by healthy adults, but Roberts advises no more than three days of use. Longer use is associated with "rebound congestion."
Decongestants for Flu Symptoms
What to Get: Options include decongestants in pill or oral forms such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Contac) and phenylephrine (such as Sudafed). Some states require you to talk to a pharmacist before buying over-the-counter medications with pseudoephedrine, as the drug is used in illegal production of methamphetamine.
What They Do, How to Use Them: Decongestants help in your surviving-the-flu efforts by narrowing blood vessels in the nose lining, reducing blood flow to the area and allowing swollen tissue to shrink and air to flow more easily.
Thermometer to Check for Fever From the Flu
What to Get: Options include a standard mercury thermometer, a digital oral or ear thermometer, or, for infants, a rectal thermometer.
What to Know, How to Use Them: Taking your temperature can help you keep tabs on your fever. "With flu, 100.4 degrees or higher is generally regarded as a fever," Roberts says. For better accuracy, don't take your temperature right after drinking hot or cold liquids, he says.
"The oral digital models are better generally than the ear models," Roberts says. In one study, researchers compared ear and rectal thermometers in children and found that ear thermometers failed to diagnose fever in three or four of every 10 children with a fever. Another study found that 5% to 31% of children with fever were misdiagnosed as not having a fever when ear thermometers were used.
Fluids to Rehydrate When You Have the Flu
What to Get: Options include plain water, bottled water, sports-rehydrating drinks, children's rehydrating drinks such as Pedialyte, ginger ale, flat soda, and chicken soup. Surviving the flu is more comfortable if you stay hydrated.
What to Know, How to Take Them: When you are battling the flu, aim to drink enough fluids to make your urine clear or light yellow, which indicates proper hydration, suggests pharmacist Vibhuti Arya. Ginger ale or flat soda can help calm stomach upset, says Arroyo. "Stay away from milk and orange juice," King suggests, "because with the flu you tend to have nausea and milk and citrus can aggravate nausea."
It could help to keep track of your fluid intake. "A lot of people think they drink more [fluids] than they do," King says. Staying hydrated can help loosen the secretions, some research suggests.
The medicinal effects of chicken soup on flu and colds have been discussed and debated since the Middle Ages. But a study published in 2000 in the journal Chest found that chicken soup reduced the migration of a kind of white blood cell called a neutrophil, thought responsible for producing some of the symptoms of flu, at least in the laboratory.