How Do I Know If I Have It?
WebMD Medical Reference
Influenza is diagnosed mainly from the collection of symptoms including 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. All ages would benefit from an annual flu vaccine when the nation's supplies are adequate.
If you have the flu, doctors would usually advise that you eat nourishing food if you feel up to it, rest, and, most important, drink 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. Also, electrolyte solutions like Gatorade and Powerade may be good options, but for most people, plain water is usually sufficient. It's likely you won't feel like doing much activity, so staying in bed 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. But remember that most people won't need to take these products, and they may even be harmful to some people, particularly those with heart disease, high blood pressure, or other respiratory problems.
Cough medicines may help, but it's most important to be drinking enough fluid.
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, since aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal complication that mostly affects children and adolescents.
There are four antiviral drugs for the treatment and prevention of influenza. For influenza A, there are amantadine (also sold under the brand name Symmetrel) and rimantadine (which has a brand name of Flumadine).
To treat and prevent both influenza A and B, there is zanamivir (with brand name Relenza) and oseltamivir (also know as Tamiflu). All of these drugs are oral pills except Relenza, which is inhaled like an asthma medication.
Secondary infections may also need to be treated. If you find that your symptoms aren't clearing up or they started to and they are now getting worse again, you may have a secondary infection. Influenza makes everyone more susceptible to other infections. See your doctor for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic mixture, is very popular in Europe as a flu remedy. Studies have shown that this treatment may reduce the duration of an illness and the severity of symptoms, but there is little evidence for preventive claims. 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. Be careful with garlic because it is known to prevent the blood from clotting, so if you're on "blood thinners," this could be a problem.
And another problem: although garlic's active ingredient, allicin, can be found in a wide range of supplements, recent studies have shown the actual amount you get may vary greatly, and often, you get very little of it. If you feel that garlic is important for your health, 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 how your immune system protects you from the flu, but evidence is mixed on its ability to treat upper respiratory infections once you've come down with the flu. Most likely to help are extracts from fresh or recently dried whole plants of the species Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea angustofolia or roots of Echinacea pallida. Take small doses for no more than eight weeks, since prolonged use may suppress your immune system. Be sure to consult your medical doctor before you start taking this supplement, since some people may be allergic to it.
Drinking ginger tea several times a day can bring relief for flu sufferers. Try a tea of coriander, cinnamon, and ginger for fever reduction. Goldenseal may work to reduce fever. Numerous other herbs, including elderflower, myrrh, willow bark, rose hips, honeysuckle flowers, and boneset could 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.
Medically reviewed by Tracy Shuman, MD, July 2005.