How to Treat the Flu: 9 Things Doctors Really Do

Updated: Dec. 26, 2019

If you do come down with the flu, these are the things that doctors recommend.

How do I treat the flu?

After stocking up on tissues, there are a few other things you should do at the first sign of the flu. Since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the flu affects about 8 percent of people in the U.S., it’s good to note this advice from the doctors. Here’s what they really do to treat the flu.

Sick businesswoman with winter chills and a fever sitting shivering in the office wrapped in a thick woolly winter scarf

Understand whether it’s a cold or a flu

You may feel congested and generally lousy for either a cold or a flu, but with the flu, a fever is common, along with achy joints and muscles, fatigue, and pain around the eyes. Here’s how to tell if it’s the flu.

Man holding glass of water and blister pack of medicine

Take a fever reducer

There are four approved antiviral flu medications (including Tamiflu, which is also available as a generic version). They are available by prescription and are most effective when started within the first 48 hours after you develop symptoms. It doesn’t cure the flu, but it does shorten its duration. Beyond that, you can simply treat your symptoms. “Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are the best fever reducers and help with symptoms,” says Nicholas Kman, MD, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “They are different classes of drugs so you can take both.”

Woman sleeping on her side in a white bed

Rest up

“One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to allow your body to rest while you are feeling under the weather,” says Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, Palo Alto, CA. “Resting gives your body a chance to fight off the infection and can help boost your immune system.” Not getting enough rest is probably the number one mistake you can make when you’re sick, but be sure to avoid these 9 ways you might make your cold or flu worse.

Woman coughing on a city street

Keep it to yourself

Flu spreads easily, so if you’re diagnosed with it, it’s best to minimize contact with others. “The best way to prevent spreading flu from an infected family member to others is to use very thorough and frequent hand washing with soap and water,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD,  chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases for Children’s National Health System. “Since influenza is spread by respiratory droplets that are emitted during coughing, speaking or sneezing, using a simple surgical mask may decrease the likelihood of these infected droplets reaching your mucous membranes and infecting you. Some studies have shown a 70 percent reduction in household spread of influenza virus by wearing a simple surgical mask in conjunction with good hand washing.” And her best advice? Stay home. “Stay away from public places for at least 24 hours after your fever resolves, and avoid close contact with others for at least seven days after your symptoms resolve, because you can still spread the flu virus to others.”

Woman sipping out of a mug
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Stay hydrated

Getting fluids could be one of the biggest secrets for how to treat the flu. “It is important to hydrate when sick with influenza,” Dr. Kman says. “Fluid rich foods like fruits and vegetables help with hydration as do soups. Drink sports drinks to help with hydration and electrolytes. Alcohol and caffeine are both diuretics so avoid these as much as possible.” These 12 other things you need in your DIY flu-fighting kit.

Man taking a shower

Hit the showers

When you’re feeling particularly icky, a shower can help alleviate some of your symptoms. “If you are experiencing a chill or a fever, taking a warm bath or cool shower could offer some comfort,” Dr. Tong says. “Adding shower or bath bombs containing eucalyptus, menthol, or other essential oils could make the experience more pleasant.”

display of heart-healthy foods: salmon, fruit, veggies, olive oil, and nuts
Antonina Vlasova/Shutterstock

Eat healthy

You may have heard to “starve a fever and feed a cold,” but doctors say that’s definitely not how to treat the flu. “A healthy diet that includes a regular supply of proteins, fruits, and vegetables is important to maintain normal immune function,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “This allows for the body to maintain a normal balance of vitamins that may impact overall immune function, including vitamins D and C and others.”

man patient speaking with a woman doctor
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Know when it’s time to hit the ER

Certain categories of patients can be more at risk of developing complications from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People over 65, young children, and pregnant women face significant risks, along with those with underlying chronic conditions, such as asthma, or lung or heart disease. “While anyone can get sick with flu and become severely ill, some people are more likely to experience severe flu illness,” Dr. Kman says. “High fever greater than 103 or fever associated with cough may be pneumonia and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (respiratory and kidney failure). If you are confused, have chest pain, or changes in your urine/decreased urination, seek medical attention.”

doctor injecting needle into patient's arm

Next year, prepare

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of flu treatment. Flu immunizations help reduce the chances that you develop a severe case of the flu—particularly if you get the vaccine every year. “A study in Spain showed that the risk of flu may be lower with annual vaccination,” says Dr. Kman. “Older adults who receive flu shots each year are less likely to be hospitalized with severe influenza infections or to die from them than those who get vaccinated only sporadically. “Most of the patients I am seeing in the emergency room have not been vaccinated, which would make one think that vaccinated folks are getting a milder version. I would favor getting the vaccine every year given the uncertainty of the strains that will be covered by the shot.” Make sure you aren’t doing any of these things that make the flu worse, either.