The Flu and You: Your Urgent Response Guide

Try these step-by-step tips for the first 5 days with the flu.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 03, 2010
6 min read

You can take all the precautions in the world, but sometimes the flu sneaks around your defenses. So what do you do when someone in your house has the flu -- or even swine flu?

To give you an idea, here's a countdown of five average days with the flu. Keep in mind that this rundown is based on a typical case of seasonalflu. There's still a lot we don't know about swine flu. But so far, its symptoms seem to be pretty similar to those of common seasonal flu viruses.

Your child or your spouse feels achy and has a fever. They were fine yesterday, but today they feel like they were hit by a truck. (The flu comes on fast -- much more quickly than the common cold.) It's probably the flu. What do you do?

First, don't panic. Obviously, given the recent outbreaks, you're going to worry that your loved one has swine flu. Just remember that there are plenty of other viruses -- including more common flu viruses -- that can cause similar symptoms. Even if it is swine flu, most cases in the U.S. have actually had fairly mild symptoms.

Next, call your doctor. You don't always need a diagnosis. Flu symptoms are pretty obvious. If your loved one is at increased risk of having contracted swine flu -- because they came in contact with someone who had it, or traveled to an area with an outbreak -- the doctor may want to take a sample and send it away for testing. The doctor also needs to know if your loved one suffers from any other conditions or chronic illnesses.

Ask your doctor if you should get an antiviral flu medication. These drugs, like Tamiflu and Relenza, can shorten the flu's duration by a couple of days and possibly lessen its intensity as well. But if they're not taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, they're not as effective. Both drugs work against the swine flu as well run-of-the-mill seasonal flu viruses. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a lung condition such as asthma. You may need to take special precautions if you take some anti-flu medications.

Even if you get the prescription in time, flu sufferers are in for an uncomfortable few days at least. The worst of the seasonal flu is generally three to five days, but symptoms can last a week or so. When family members have the flu:

  • Make them comfortable.
  • Give them plenty of fluids.
  • Keep them in bed.

You can ease symptoms like fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, says Robert P. Holman, MD, an infectious disease specialist in private practice at Virginia Hospital Center and an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to young children. Avoid aspirin in children under 18 because it can cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious disease that causes brain swelling and liver damage. Talk to your child's health care provider about what medicines are safe to treat your child's symptoms.

Try to protect the rest of the family and others from getting the flu. There's no surefire way. When the flu virus first infects someone, it multiplies quietly in body. This is called the incubation period. Once the person starts to get symptoms, they are excreting enough virus to give it to someone else. So you are exposed to the virus before you realize it.

But to lower your risk, everybody in the household should be vigilant about washing hands regularly, especially before and after you spend time with the sick person. According to the CDC, hand washing is a key defense against both seasonal flu and swine flu. When you're not near a sink, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

The person who has the flu should be reminded to cover their mouth when coughing, not cough toward other people, and wash hands often.

It's best for recovery and for preventing the spread of flu germs if the person who's sick stays in bed and gets plenty of rest. (As much as the other kids may want to play Candy Land on their sick sibling's bed, that's a recipe for a houseful of flu!)

If someone in your house is at particular risk from the flu -- an infant, elderly, frail grandparent, or someone with a compromised immune system such as a cancer patient -- make sure your doctor knows. Ask about getting your loved one a prescription for an antiviral flu medication, which can help that person avoid catching the flu. This is especially important if they haven't yet had a fluvaccine.

Some of the sufferer’s flu symptoms, like a cough, may be abating by now. (You can use a cough suppressant for adults and kids over age 6 if it’s still troublesome.) The fever is probably still over 100, though, and muscle aches can last for days.

If you notice any major change in symptoms, such as a serious spike in fever or shortness of breath, call your doctor.

"High spiking fevers and shortness of breath may signal a bacterial complication like pneumonia, sinusitis, or an ear infection, which can develop on top of the flu in a small number of people," says Holman.

By now, both you and your flu sufferer are probably wondering: "When can I get out of here?" When is it OK for someone who's had the flu to go back to work or school?

When it comes to seasonal flu, use your symptoms as a guide. "Usually after most of the symptoms are gone -- the fever, the cough, and the muscle aches," says Holman. "You're probably well enough to go out at that point, and you're likely not particularly contagious. Viral shedding in respiratory secretions peaks at one to two days of illness, and really drops off after that. You may still have some residual fatigue for a few days after the other symptoms subside, but if that's the only symptom, it's probably OK to start resuming your activities."

You should limit contact with others while sick and stay home until fever is completely gone for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication).

Think about getting the seasonal flu vaccine for the family. If you haven't gotten vaccinated yet, this is an excellent time to do it -- while you still remember how miserable the flu can be. (Because there are different strains of flu, you can get the flu more than once in a year.) The 2010-2011 seasonal flu vaccine covers three strains of flu, including the H1N1 swine flu.

It takes about two weeks for the seasonal flu vaccine's protection to kick in, so "sooner rather than later" is a good rule. Flu season stretches from fall to spring, so even if you haven't gotten the vaccine by early winter, you still need the protection.