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. People older than 6 months of age 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 and getting rest 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 age 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), peramivir (Rapivab), and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Zanamivir is inhaled like an asthma medication. Tamiflu is taken as a pill and Rapivab is given in one intravenous dose.
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. The flu makes everyone more susceptible to other infections. See your doctor for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
While the scientific evidence of its benefits is sparse, oscillococcinum, a homeopathic mixture, is very popular in Europe as a flu remedy. 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.
Herbs and Dietary Supplements
Many claims have been made, but there isn't enough research demonstrating any benefit of many herbs, including garlic and ginseng. Garlic is known to prevent the blood from clotting, so if you're on "blood thinners," it could present a problem.
Garlic's active ingredient, allicin, can be found in a wide range of supplements. However, recent studies have shown the actual amount you get may vary greatly, and often, you get very little of it. Garlic does have some natural anti-viral properties, but has no proven effectiveness in the prevention or treatment of the flu. If you feel that garlic is important for your health, it’s safe, the fresh variety may be the best choice.
There are few well-designed studies on how these herbs and supplements treat and prevent influenza. But one trial of ginseng suggested that it may enhance the effect of the flu vaccine.
There are some studies to suggest that Echinacea may enhance your immune system, but evidence is mixed on its ability to treat or prevent the flu. If you want to see for yourself, take small doses for no more than eight weeks, because prolonged use may suppress your immune system. Be sure to consult your medical doctor before you start taking this supplement, because some people may be allergic to it.
Drinking ginger tea several times a day may bring relief for flu sufferers. Herbs including elderflower, myrrh, willow bark, rose hips, honeysuckle flowers, and boneset may bring relief from the many symptoms that accompany the flu.
Raised body temperature, respiration, pulse, and blood pressure may be lowered through acupuncture treatment in some cases of severe colds and flu. The World Health Organization supports the use of acupuncture for respiratory and infectious complications of the flu.