Understanding the Flu: How Do I Know if I Have It?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 07, 2022
4 min read

Influenza is diagnosed on the basis of symptoms that include fever, headache, muscle aches, and respiratory symptoms. COVID-19 has similar symptoms and it's important not to confuse the two. Your doctor may take a nasal test to help tell if you have the flu or a COVID-19 infection.

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 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 should get the annual flu vaccine to prevent the flu.

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 getting extra rest is fine.

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. 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. Do not use aspirin in children under the age of 19 because it is associated with Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal complication.

There are antiviral medicines, as well. To treat and prevent both influenza A and B, there are baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza), oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), and zanamivir (Relenza). Zanamivir is inhaled like an asthma medication. Tamiflu and Xofluza are taken as pills 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.  Be sure your medical doctor knows of everything you are taking -- standard medicine and alternatives.

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 help 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. One trial of ginseng suggested that it may enhance the effect of the flu vaccine, but more research is needed.

There are some studies to suggest that Echinacea may enhance your immune system, but the evidence is mixed on its ability to treat or prevent the flu. Be sure to consult your medical doctor before you start taking this supplement, because some people may be allergic to it.
Drinking ginger tea or hot soup several times a day may bring relief for flu sufferers. Herbs including elderflower, myrrh, willow bark, rose hips, honeysuckle flowers, and boneset have also been suggested for 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.