How to Treat the Flu

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 11, 2020

The first step in treating this illness is to take good care of yourself. If you have symptoms -- fever, chills, aches, and feeling bad all over -- doctors say you should rest, eat healthy food, and drink more fluids than you usually do. A fever can dry out your system, so you need to replace what you’re losing. Water and broth are fine, especially if you don’t really want to eat.

It’s best to give your body a rest. So if you don’t feel much like moving around, it’s fine to stay in bed. Get up when you feel you can. Don’t exercise if you have chest congestion, a hacking cough, body aches, or fever.

Do Over-the-Counter Medicines Work?

Fever reducers, antihistamines, decongestants, and cough medicines may help you feel better, but they won’t help you get better any faster.

Read labels carefully. Some products may have side effects you don’t want. Some antihistamines can make you drowsy. That’s why they’re usually only in nighttime cold medicines. Decongestants can boost your blood pressure, so skip them if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. They might make you jittery or nervous, or keep you awake at night.

Some doctors think a fever can be a good thing, because it zaps the flu virus. Does that mean taking medicine to lower your fever could slow your recovery? With a mild fever (less than 100 degrees F), maybe by a little bit. But if you feel lousy you may want to take one anyway. Fever makes your heart and lungs work harder, so these meds may be a good idea for older people and those with heart or lung disease. If your fever is high or doesn’t get better after 2 or 3 days, call your doctor to see if you need an office visit.

Products made to treat more than one symptom can help, too. But if you have only one or two complaints, pick a medicine that only treats what’s bothering you.

The Flu and Kids

Call the doctor if your child:

  • Is under 3 months old with a fever of 100.4 degrees F or higher
  • Is between 3 months and 36 months old with a fever of 102.2 degrees or higher
  • Has a fever higher than 104 degrees
  • Is very ill, drowsy, or fussy, not acting normally, has a fever that lasts more than 24 hours (in a child under age 2) or 3 days (in an older child), or has a fever that keeps getting higher
  • Has other medical conditions, other symptoms, or has a seizure
  • Vomiting or belly pain
  • Earache or other symptoms not typical of the flu

For body aches, doctors suggest you give your child over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium. Don’t give aspirin to anyone under 19 years old. It’s linked with Reye’s syndrome, a sometimes fatal illness that affects children and teens. To avoid stomach upset, take ibuprofen with food.

Don’t give OTC cough medicines to kids under 4. They don’t work. Homemade cough remedies with honey do help. After your child is 1 year old, you can use ½ to 1 teaspoon of honey as needed. It can help thin the mucus and ease the cough. Never give honey to children under 1 year old -- it can be toxic to them.

Prescription Medicine

Your doctor can give you drugs that help fight the flu and ease your symptoms. But you should take them within the first 48 after you start to feel sick. Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) are medications you take by mouth, zanamivir (Relenza) is inhaled, and peramivir (Rapivab) is given into a vein. Your doctor may be more likely to prescribe one if your illness is severe or to people who are:

  • Children under 5
  • Adults age 65 or older
  • People with asthma, diabetes, or other chronic medical conditions
  • Pregnant women or those who delivered within 2 weeks
  • Nursing home residents
  • Native Americans/Alaska Natives
  • People who are extremely obese
  • People with weakened immune systems

Herbal Remedies

Oscillococcinum is popular in Europe and has gained fans in the U.S. Studies have shown it may shorten your case of the flu and ease your symptoms, but there’s no proof that it prevents the flu.

You hear a lot about echinacea, but recent studies can’t say whether it helps with colds or the flu. One sticking point: No one is sure which is the best echinacea species, plant part, active ingredient, or how much you should take. Don’t take it if you’re allergic to ragweed.

Some research shows elderberry extract might help if you take it within the first 24 to 48 hours after you start to feel flu symptoms. There aren’t any known side effects if you use it for 5 days or less. Don’t eat the plant -- it can make you sick to your stomach.

Other herbal remedies that may help when you have flu include:

  • Lozenges with slippery elm: They may help sore throats and coughs from all that gunk running down the back of your throat. (Doctors call this postnasal drip.)
  • Ginger tea: It may help with nausea.

One word of warning: There’s no hard proof that these herbal treatments really work against the flu.

Also, strength varies widely from product to product. That makes it hard to know if an herb really works -- or if you’re getting enough of it to help. Stick with those that have been certified by a third party, like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International.

Check with your doctor before trying one, because they may change the way your other medications work. Always tell your doctor about everything you’re taking, whether it’s prescription or not.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

There are lots of studies that suggest vitamin C and zinc can ease cold symptoms and maybe shorten the illness -- but there isn’t a lot to show that they help treat the flu.

Show Sources


Mayo Clinic: “Fitness;” “Fever;” “Ginseng;” and “Cold remedies: What Works, What Doesn't, What Can't Hurt.”

Medline Plus: “Fever.”

Stanford University Vaden Health Center: “What You Should Know About Medications.”

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): “Homeopathic Oscillococcinum for Preventing and Treating Influenza and Influenza-Like Syndromes.”

Lissiman, E.Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009; issue 3.

Johns Hopkins: “Symptoms and Remedies.”

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.

American Academy of Pediatrics.

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