How to Treat the Flu at Home

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Woman with flu

Influenza—commonly called “the flu”—is a respiratory illness that causes high fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, coughing, and congestion. Most cases of flu don’t require medical attention, and you’ll likely feel better in a week to 10 days even without treatment. But, starting supportive home care when you first notice the signs and symptoms of flu can bring relief and may even shorten the duration of your illness. Get the facts on flu home remedies about how to successfully treat the flu at home.

Flu Treatment 101

Early flu symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, fatigue, and body aches. Colds come on gradually; the flu hits all at once. When you notice flu symptoms, head for home. Influenza is highly contagious, so people with the flu should remain at home (unless medical care is needed) to avoid infecting others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who have the flu should stay home until they’ve been fever-free—without the aid of fever-reducing medication—for at least 24 hours.

Sleep boosts the immune system, so nap when you feel tired. Trying to “power through” the flu is not a good idea; you’ll recover more quickly if you give your body the rest it needs to get rid of the flu germ on its own.

Drink plenty of fluids. High fevers can cause dehydration—which will make you feel even worse—so keep a glass of water or cup of tea nearby and take a few sips at least every hour. Your urine should be a pale light yellow. Dark yellow urine is a sign you need to increase your fluid intake.

Home Remedies for Flu

Some time-tested home remedies can help ease the cough and congestion that frequently accompany flu. Home remedies for congestion include:

  • Nasal saline rinse. You can use a neti pot or other nasal rinse system plus a small amount of salt, baking soda and distilled water to clear your sinuses. Do not use tap water unless you’ve boiled it first and allowed it to cool. Not sure how to do a nasal rinse? Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist to explain the procedure to you.

  • Saline spray. You can use an over-the-counter saline nasal spray 3 to 4 times a day. The directions for use are on the spray container.

  • Vaporizer. Running a cool-mist vaporizer adds moisture to the air and may ease congestion. Make sure it is clean before use and rinse it clean every day.

  • Steam. Really stuffed up? Spend some time in a hot shower, or simply run the shower and let the steam build up in the bathroom.

To ease a cough, try:

  • Hard candy or cough drops. But, don’t give hard candy or cough drops to children under the age of 6, due to the risk of choking.

  • Honey. According to scientific studies, 2 teaspoons of honey is as effective at relieving cough—and safer—than over-the-counter cough medicine. Do not give honey to infants younger than 1 year.

  • Warm liquids. Try a combination of hot water, lemon juice, and honey.

Over-the-Counter Medication for Flu

There are no over-the-counter medicines that can cure the flu or shorten the duration of the illness. Available cold-and-flu products help relieve symptoms.

You may want to consider:

  • Decongestant. Oral and nasal decongestants may help you breathe more comfortably. Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) is a common decongestant.

  • Fever-reducer/pain reliever. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) both reduce fevers and ease body aches. If necessary, you can alternate does of ibuprofen and acetaminophen to better control fever.

It’s best to steer clear of combination cold-and-flu medicines that contain many ingredients. You may end up taking medicine you don’t really need, and could inadvertently take too much acetaminophen, for example, if you take a combination product plus Tylenol.

When to Seek Medical Care

People who are at high risk for flu complications—including children younger than 5 years, adults older than 65, pregnant women, and people with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or kidney or liver disease—should see a healthcare provider as soon as they develop early flu symptoms. The provider can prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce the severity of the illness, but the medication is most effective if taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms.

Otherwise healthy people usually do not need to see a doctor for the flu. However, if you notice any of these symptoms, call your healthcare provider right away:

With proper home care, most people will feel better in a week or two.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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