The flu is a viral infection that strikes the entire body with a vengeance. The misery starts suddenly with chills and fever and spirals into more unpleasant symptoms that will take you out of commission: a sore throat, dry cough, stuffy or runny nose, headache (especially behind the eyes), severe muscle aches and pains, weakness, backache, and loss of appetite. Some people even experience pain and stiffness in the joints.
Flu is a highly contagious illness, spread by droplets from the respiratory tract of an infected person. These droplets can be airborne, such as those released after a person coughs or sneezes, or they can be transferred via an infected person’s hands.
The worst of your symptoms will last about three to five days, but others, such as cough and fatigue, can linger for weeks. And a bout with the flu can deliver a double whammy if you develop a secondary infection, such as an ear or sinus infection or bronchitis. Even pneumonia can be a complication — and a potentially serious one — of influenza.
1. Get Plenty of Rest
Plan on sleeping and otherwise taking it easy for a few days. This shouldn’t be hard to do considering fatigue is one of the main symptoms, so you won’t feel like doing much other than lounging in bed or on the couch, anyway. Consider it a good excuse to take a needed break from the daily stresses of life. And if you absolutely must continue to work, at least get to bed earlier than usual and try to go into the office a little later in the morning.
2. Take Aspirin, Acetaminophen, or Ibuprofen
The flu is often accompanied by a high fever that can range from 102 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. You can count on a doozy of a headache, too. Lowering the fever will help prevent dehydration and will cut down on the severe, shaking chills associated with fever. On the other hand, since a fever may actually help your body fight the bug, you may want to try to let the fever run its course if it’s safe for you to do so. Aspirin and ibuprofen are generally better at easing aches and pains; acetaminophen is most effective at fighting fever. For a list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics, click here.
3. Drink, Drink, Drink
This doesn’t mean alcoholic beverages, of course. But drinking plenty of any other nonalcoholic, decaffeinated liquid (caffeine and alcohol both act as diuretics, which actually increase fluid loss) will help keep you hydrated and will also thin mucous secretions. The flu can cause a loss of appetite, but patients often find warm, salty broth agreeable. If you’re not eating much, juices are a good choice, too, since they provide nutrients you may be missing.
4. Humidify Your Home in Winter
Ever wonder why the flu tends to strike in the colder months? Part of the reason is your furnace. Artificial heat lowers humidity, creating an environment that allows the influenza virus to thrive. (Colder outside air also pushes people together in confined indoor spaces, making it easier for the flu bug to spread). Adding some moisture to the air in your home during the winter with a warm- or cool-mist humidifier may not only help prevent the spread of flu, it may also make you feel more comfortable if you do get it.
5. Suppress a Dry Cough
For a dry, hacking cough that’s keeping you from getting the rest you need, you can reach for over-the-counter relief. When shopping for a cough remedy, look for products that contain dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant.
6. Encourage a “Productive” Cough
A cough that brings up mucus, on the other hand, is considered productive and should generally not be suppressed with cough medicines. Drinking fluids will help bring up the mucus of a productive cough and will ease the cough a little as well.
Canned broth, whether it’s beef, chicken, or vegetable, will keep you hydrated and help liquefy any mucous secretions. Broth is easy to keep down, even when you have no appetite, and will provide at least some nutrients.
A hacking cough can keep you and every other household member up all night. Keep the peace with honey. Honey has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for coughs. It’s a simple enough recipe: Mix 1 tablespoon honey into 1 cup hot water, stir well, and enjoy. Honey acts as a natural expectorant, promoting the flow of mucus. Squeeze some lemon in if you want a little tartness.
Not to discredit dear old Grandma, but she didn’t come up with the mustard plaster, although by the way she touts its virtues, you might believe so. Actually, this ancient remedy for the flu, chest colds, and bronchitis dates back to the Ancient Romans, who early on understood the healing properties of mustard. Mustard is loaded with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, many of which can be inhaled through the vapors. Impress Grandma by making a mustard plaster with 1 tablespoon dry mustard and 2 to 4 tablespoons flour. Mix both with 1 egg white (optional) and warm water to form a paste. Next, find a clean handkerchief or square of muslin large enough to cover the upper chest. Smear the cloth the same way you’d smear mustard on a sandwich, then plop another cloth over it. Dab olive oil on the patient’s skin and apply the mustard plaster to the upper chest. Check yourself or the patient every few minutes since mustard plaster can burn. Remove after a few minutes. Afterward, wash off any traces of mustard from the skin.
A cup of hot tea is just another way to take your fluids, which are so essential when you have the flu. Just be sure to choose decaffeinated varieties. Caffeine is a mild diuretic, which is counterproductive when you have the flu, and you certainly don’t want to be awakened with the need to use the bathroom when you need your rest!
Any flavor or kind will do. Just drink lots of juice both to keep yourself hydrated and to give yourself some extra vitamins.
The lovely lemon may cause a puckered face if eaten raw, but in a hot beverage, lemons will have you smiling. Hot lemonade has been used as a flu remedy since Roman times and is still highly regarded in the folk traditions of New England. Lemons, being highly acidic, help make mucous membranes distasteful to bacteria and viruses. Lemon oil, which gives the juice its fragrance, is like a wonder drug containing antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory constituents. The oil also acts as an expectorant. To make this flu-fighting fruit drink, place 1 chopped lemon — skin, pulp, and all — into 1 cup boiling water. While the lemon steeps for 5 minutes, inhale the steam. Strain, add honey (to taste), and enjoy. Drink hot lemonade three to four times a day throughout your illness.
Pepper is an irritant, yet this annoying characteristic is a plus for those suffering from coughs with thick mucus. The irritating property of pepper stimulates circulation and the flow of mucus. Place 1 teaspoon black pepper into a cup and sweeten things up with the addition of 1 tablespoon honey. Fill with boiling water, let steep for 10 to 15 minutes, stir, and sip.
It’s time to try thyme when the mucous membranes are stuffed, the head aches, and the body is hot with fever. Wonderfully fragrant, thyme delights the senses (if you can smell when you’re sick) and works as a powerful expectorant and antiseptic, thanks to its constituent oil, thymol. By cupping your hands around a mug of thyme tea and breathing in the steam, the thymol sets to work through your upper respiratory tract, loosening mucus and inhibiting bacteria from settling down to stay. Make thyme tea in a snap by adding 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves to 1 cup boiling water. Let steep for five minutes while inhaling the steam. Strain the tea, sweeten with honey (to taste), and slowly sip.
Next time you’re coming down with the flu bug, give one of these home remedies a try. You could surprise your friends and co-workers by nipping it in the bud!