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8 Things to Do When You Have the Flu — and 8 Things to Avoid

What experts say you should reach for and pay attention to if you get sick

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For plenty of people, the flu is mostly just a nuisance. But that is not the case for older adults.​ 

“Even though people over 60 are less than 20 percent of the population, they account for over 80 percent of the serious complications of influenza,” says William Schaffner, M.D., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “So what you do when you get the flu turns out to be very important for this age group.”

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The same goes for what you don’t do. Here are eight ways to hasten your recovery from the flu.

1. Call your health care provider ASAP

Not everyone who gets the flu needs to see their doctor, but people over 65 do. That’s because age itself — along with many other conditions that often come along in later years, such as diabetes and heart disease — puts you at risk for serious complications from the flu, namely pneumonia.

“As we age, our immune system responds less vigorously than it does when we’re younger,” explains Stuart Ray, M.D., professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “Both antibodies and T cells play important roles in protecting against infection and severe disease from influenza. And those tend to decrease during late adulthood.”

Your doctor will likely prescribe an antiviral medication that helps your body fight off the influenza virus. Research shows that taking an antiviral, like Tamiflu, at the first sign of the flu can reduce symptoms and shorten your bout of the flu by one day.

How Well Does a Flu Shot Work?  

The influenza vaccine can help keep you from getting the flu in the first place. It can also lower your risk of getting sick if you do get infected by between 40 and 60 percent, according to the CDC. Don’t delay: The best time to get your flu shot, experts say, is in September or October. 

Don’t postpone treatment

With antivirals, time is of the essence. You should take them within 48 hours after symptoms kick in. “What we adults tend to do is say, ‘I’d rather not go to the doctor. Let’s see if I feel better tomorrow,’ ” Schaffner says. “When we get what we think is influenza, it’s important to contact our health care provider, because the sooner we get the treatment, the better the success of the treatment.”

Keep in mind: You don’t have to make an in-person appointment. Your doctor should be able to assess your symptoms virtually. Miss your 48-hour window? There’s still some benefit to taking an antiviral “beyond the 48 hours, but it diminishes day by day,” Schaffner says.

2. Stay home

The flu is highly contagious, spreading through droplets in the air when you cough, sneeze or talk. And that’s true even before you feel fluish. According to the National Institute on Aging, people with the flu can spread it a day before and up to a week after feeling sick.

Don’t leave home until your fever is gone

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home until you’re fever free — without the help of fever-reducing meds — for 24 hours.

3. Wash your hands

Disease-causing germs are easily spread by dirty hands. You know the drill: Throughout the day, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with regular soap and water — antibacterial soaps have no added benefit, according to the CDC — for at least 20 seconds.

Don’t expect alcohol-based hand sanitizer to get the job done

Sure, in a pinch it’s better than nothing. But research shows that soap and water are far more effective than hand sanitizers in removing certain kinds of germs. That said, if you’re nowhere near a bar of soap and running water, reach for the hand sanitizer. Just make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.


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4. Drink plenty of fluids

“It’s important to stay well-hydrated when you have a fever,” Ray says. “Hydration will also help alleviate general malaise.” To that end, keep a big glass of water on the nightstand — juice, broth, decaffeinated herbal tea all work, too.

Don’t reach for that morning mug of coffee

Same goes for any caffeinated beverage and also alcohol. All of these are dehydrating, which will slow your recovery. “Dehydration means you can’t get your secretions up,” Schaffner says. “It’s more difficult to mobilize [the secretions] out of your chest and cough them up, and that can predispose you to the development of pneumonia.”

5. Rinse and moisten your sinuses

A neti pot is one way to clear out built-up mucus in your sinuses. But if you’re not comfortable using the little teapot-looking container, here’s another way to relieve congestion and keep your nasal passages moist.

“A warm — not hot — shower will immerse you in warm moisture, and that will lubricate your mucous membranes, particularly if you can cup some warm water into your hands, snuffle that up into your nose, and then very gently blow your nose,” Schaffner suggests.

Don’t use a humidifier

If your humidifier is just-out-of-the-box brand new, that’s one thing. But if you’ve had yours for a while, it’s probably best to skip it, Schaffner says. “They’re usually not cleaned very well, so bacteria grows and suddenly you’re aerosolizing contaminated water.”

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6. Consider over-the-counter pain relievers

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen aren’t cures, but they can help reduce fever and alleviate aches and pains. Just “be sure to read the label carefully because these medications are not without risk — they can injure the liver, kidneys, intestines and cause other side effects — and these risks rise with age and complex health history,” Ray says. “Moreover, they don’t reduce the risk of hospitalization or death.”  

Don’t take decongestants

Or at least not without consulting your health care provider. Here’s why: “Decongestants contain a combination of ingredients, some of which can increase your heart rate, even raise your blood pressure, and possibly interfere with sleep,” Schaffner says. 

7. Stay physically active

Forget what your mother said about staying in bed 24/7. “You have to listen to your body. But the more time you spend horizontal, the worse it is — physically and psychologically,” Schaffner says. 

Don’t overdo it

That said, now is not the time to try for your personal best — for example, turning that daily power walk into a run or trying that hot yoga class you’ve been curious about. “Although gentle exercise, even just walking around, will make you feel better,” Schaffner says.

8. Pay attention to symptoms

If your symptoms are getting progressively worse — you’ve got chest pain, your temperature is going up, you’re coughing up yellow phlegm — call your doctor, “particularly if you have any underlying illnesses and you’re worse today than you were yesterday,” Schaffner says.

Don’t try to tough it out on your own

You may be in the early stages of pneumonia, the most common complication of the flu.  It can cause severe illness in people of every age, but older adults are among the most vulnerable. Research published in 2018 found that more than 1 in 6 adults 65 and older who are hospitalized with pneumonia die from the infection. 

Editor's note: This story, first published Oct. 3, 2022, has been updated.

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