How to Treat the Flu — and Keep It From Spreading

For starters, you shouldn't go to work or school.

Loading the player...

If you’re a victim of flu season, you not only want to help yourself feel better: You also want to avoid spreading the virus to loved ones. After all, influenza is a highly contagious virus. That's why once flu symptoms begin, it's important to think of how to treat your symptoms and prevent spreading to others.

How do you treat the flu at home?

Luckily, most people with the flu won’t need medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The flu can be “self-diagnosed,” meaning you don’t need to go to the doctor to take a test confirming you have the flu—unless symptoms get worse (more on that later). For these people, treatment for the flu is as simple as the following:

  • Stay home to keep the virus from spreading.

  • Rest. Your immune system uses a lot of energy when fighting off an infection. It’s okay to spend the day on the couch watching soap operas.

  • Drink plenty of water. Even if you have a low appetite and don’t feel like eating much, it’s still important to stay hydrated.

When is it time to see a doctor?

The above three things are good enough most of the time, for most people, but your doctor may recommend an antiviral drug if you have a higher risk of complications. That’s because the flu can lead to more dangerous things like pneumonia, or it can worsen symptoms of chronic medical conditions like asthma and COPD. Learn more about complications of the flu here.

The most well-known antiviral drug for the flu is Tamiflu. It’s available via prescription only, but it can help lessen the severity and duration of flu symptoms, such as fever and body aches. Most people won’t need this, but it can be life-saving for people in high-risk groups (like those over 65, younger than 5, or with chronic medical conditions).

Is it possible to prevent the flu?

If you’ve got the flu and want to keep others from getting it, there are additional things you can do to contain the highly contagious virus.

Remember, this virus spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks—causing them to spew tiny droplets (yuck) that contain the virus. These droplets can get in another person’s nose or mouth and enter the respiratory system, or they could touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouths.

If you have the flu, know that you’re contagious for three to five days. In fact, you may be contagious up to a day before symptoms actually appear. During your period of contagiousness, it’s crucial to follow these preventative measures:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer if washing is not an option.

  • Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

  • Avoid close contact with others. An infected person can spread the flu to someone up to six feet away, according to the CDC.

Of course, the best way for you and your loved ones (and everyone else) to prevent the flu is by getting the annual flu shot … before flu season hits. Once someone in your home has the flu, it might be too late to protect yourself with the flu vaccine, since it can take a few weeks to take effect. Learn more about when to get the flu shot here.