The Flu: What to Do if You Get Sick

Flu Symptoms:  

Flu can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Flu is different from a cold. Flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever*
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

 What should I do if I get sick?

Most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.

If, however, you have symptoms of flu and are in a high-risk group, or are very sick or worried about your illness, contact your health care provider (doctor, physician assistant, etc.).

Certain people are at high risk of serious flu-related complications (including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions). This is true both for seasonal flu and novel flu virus infections. (For a full list of people at high risk of flu-related complications, see People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications). If you are in a high-risk group and develop flu symptoms, it’s best for you to contact your doctor early in your illness. Remind them about your high-risk status for flu. CDC recommends that people at high risk for complications should get antiviral treatment as early as possible because the benefit is greatest if treatment is started within 2 days after illness onset. 

Do I need to go to the emergency room if I am only a little sick?

No. The emergency room should be used for people who are very sick. You should not go to the emergency room if you are only mildly ill.

If you have the emergency warning signs of flu sickness, you should go to the emergency room. If you get sick with flu symptoms and are at high risk of flu complications or you are concerned about your illness, call your health care provider for advice. If you go to the emergency room and you are not sick with the flu, you may catch it from people who do have it.

What are the emergency warning signs of flu sickness?

In children:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:

  • Being unable to eat
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

In adults:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Are there medicines to treat the flu?

Yes. There are drugs your doctor may prescribe for treating the flu called “antivirals.” These drugs can make you better faster and may also prevent serious complications. See Treatment – Antiviral Drugs for more information.

How long should I stay home if I’m sick?

CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the need to use a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®. Until then, you should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings.

CDC also recommends that children and teenagers (anyone aged 18 years and younger) who have flu or are suspected to have flu should not be given Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or any salicylate-containing products (e.g. Pepto Bismol); this can cause a rare, very serious complication called Reye’s syndrome. More information about Reye’s syndrome can be found here.

What should I do while I’m sick?

 Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from infecting them. If you must leave home, for example, to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Wash your hands often to keep from spreading flu to others.

Steps to Take if You Get the Flu:

  1. If you get very sick, are pregnant, or are 65 years or older, or are otherwise at high risk of flu-related complications, call your doctor. You might need antiviral drugs to treat flu.
  2. Stay at home and rest.
  3. Avoid close contact with well people in your house so you won’t make them sick.
  4. Drink plenty of water and other clear liquids to prevent fluid loss (dehydration).

When caring for people who have the flu:

  • Avoid being face to face with the sick person. If possible, it is best to spend the least amount of time in close contact with a sick person.
  • When holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face.
  • Wash your hands often and right away.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person. Wash after handling their tissues or laundry.

Content source: Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)