Treatment for the flu is primarily supportive — the main goal is to ease symptoms. The best approach depends on the symptoms that the person has.
The flu, or influenza, is a contagious seasonal respiratory illness caused by a virus.
Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly. They can include joint pain, a fever, a cough, a stuffy nose, and fatigue. In some people they can be mild, while in others they can be severe enough to require hospitalization.
A caregiver can help in many ways, such as providing foods and fluids and making sure that the person can rest comfortably. Continue reading for more advice about caring for a person with the flu.
When a person has the flu, both medical treatments and home care strategies can help.
A healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu). This is suitable for adults and children aged 2 weeks and older.
Antiviral medication may also help reduce the risk of flu complications, including in people with a high risk.
According to one study, for example, antiviral treatment had a protective effect in people aged 65–74 years who were hospitalized with influenza — when they received the medication within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms.
The symptoms and severity of influenza vary from person to person.
The following table will help identify what home remedies and treatments to use, depending on a person’s symptoms:
|joint pain, muscle aches, a headache, or a fever||over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, called NSAIDs|
|a cough||cough medicine and fluids, such as tea with honey and lemon|
|a sore throat||lemon water, lozenges, herbal teas, ice chips, popsicles, and salt water gargles|
|a stuffy or runny nose||nasal saline spray, a humidifier, and a warm washcloth on the face|
|fatigue||naps and limited activity|
|chills and sweats||sponge baths and wearing lightweight, comfortable clothes|
|nausea and vomiting||sips of ginger ale, mild tea, dry crackers and other bland foods, lemon drops, and fluids for rehydration|
Certain supplements may also provide relief, including those with:
Keeping them comfortable
An important aspect of caring for someone with the flu is making sure that they get enough rest.
To help make someone with the flu more comfortable:
- Make sure that they can rest undisturbed and encourage sleep.
- Offer plenty of liquids, including broths, tea with honey and lemon, and water.
- Provide fresh water continually, with a straw for small sips.
- Provide multiple pillows and soft bedding.
- Administer over-the-counter cough syrups and pain and fever relief medication, as needed.
- Note down doses and times to prevent overmedicating.
- Offer to make small amounts of bland food.
- Help them change their clothes daily, or more often if a fever is causing sweating.
If possible, designate a “sick room” for the person to stay in. To make it more comfortable:
- Make sure that the environment is clean and uncluttered.
- Use white noise to mask any distracting sounds.
- Open a window or use an air purifier to allow fresh air to circulate.
- Change bedsheets daily.
It can help to keep the following handy when caring for someone with the flu:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- washcloths for cool or warm compresses
- a thermometer
- cough drops
- a menthol rub
- a trash can and plastic bags
- alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- a cup with straw or a squeeze bottle to encourage drinking
- a humidifier
- face masks
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people with influenza have a mild form and will recover in under 2 weeks without medical care.
However, some people have a higher risk of developing flu complications, including:
- people with weakened immune systems, including adults aged 65 and older and children under 5
- residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
- students living in dormitories
- pregnant women, including up to 2 weeks after delivery
- anyone with a body mass index of at least 40 kilograms per square meter
- people taking oral steroids, other immunosuppressive medications, or cancer chemotherapy
- anyone who has received an organ transplant
- other people with suppressed immune systems, such as people with HIV or cancer
- people with chronic conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, neuromuscular disease, or diabetes
How to manage complications
- severe asthma attacks
- problems affecting the heart, central nervous system, or both
- multi-organ failure
Any of these constitutes a medical emergency and requires urgent care.
Other flu complications are more common and usually less severe. Below, learn about these and some tips for managing them.
Sinus and ear infections
Ongoing nasal swelling and congestion can cause fluid to become trapped in the sinus cavities and middle ear. This can lead to a sinus or ear infection.
To reduce the swelling and congestion, try:
- pain relief medication
- decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
- saline nasal spray
- elevating the head with plenty of pillows to encourage sinus drainage
Always consult a pharmacist or healthcare provider before giving any over-the-counter medicines to children younger than 4 years old.
Also, if anyone suspects a sinus or ear infection, it is a good idea to ask a healthcare provider whether additional treatment is necessary.
- a fever
- a cough with pus or blood-tinged sputum
- a bluish tint to the lips or face
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms requires immediate medical attention. Antibiotics and hospitalization may be necessary.
When a person with the flu coughs, sneezes, or talks, they release infectious droplets into the air. A person can catch the flu if they are close enough to breathe in these droplets — within about 6 feet of the person who is ill.
A caregiver can also be exposed to the virus if they touch a contaminated surface or object and then touch their face.
To avoid catching the flu:
- Keep the person with the flu in a separate room, if possible.
- Wear a face mask when providing care.
- Limit the time spent with the person or keep a chair outside their room for chatting.
- Wash the hands frequently with soap and water, and dry them with a fresh paper towel each time.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
- Use sanitizing wipes or sprays on surfaces that could be contaminated, such as bathroom handles, sinks, and doorknobs.
- Do not share linens, towels, washcloths, utensils, or glasses.
- Ensure that the ill person wears a mask when using a shared bathroom or coming into close contact with others.
The CDC recommend that everyone aged 6 months and older receive flu vaccination.
For most people with the flu, symptoms resolve within 5–7 days without professional medical care.
However, a person should see a doctor if symptoms do not improve after several days of rest and home care.
Also, seek medical attention if any of the following develop:
- difficulty breathing, such as shortness of breath
- pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- sudden dizziness or feeling about to faint
- signs of dehydration
- a persistent high fever that over-the-counter medication does not improve
- a sudden worsening of symptoms after they had begun to improve
Anyone providing care who has worries or concerns should ask a medical professional for advice.
Caring for someone with the flu involves helping to ease symptoms and being watchful for signs of complications.
Most people recover from the flu within a week or two, while others have a higher risk of complications such as pneumonia.
Anyone with concerns about caring for someone with the flu should speak to a medical professional.