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St. Luke’s Flu Survival Guide

Category: Health Stories
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Dr. Matt Hansmeier talks with a patient at St. Luke's Mariner Medical Clinic & Urgent Care.

Being sick can be pretty awful. No one wants to take time out of their busy schedule to lie on a couch for a few days while their body fights off a virus. However for us in the Northland, flu season is an annual reality that each of us should be prepared for.

If you start to feel tired and achy, and develop a cough, stuffy nose or sore throat, you may have caught the flu. A good way to tell is to check your temperature. If you’re at 100.4°F or above, you have a fever. This is a measurable indicator that something out of the ordinary is going on in your body.

Flu survival basics

Allow yourself to embrace the “sick role.” Expect to be really sick for three to five days, and stay home. Taking a break like this will allow your body to fight off the virus and keep the sickness from spreading to others. As you’re resting, make an effort to stay hydrated. Water, tea, broth or sports drinks are all good options. If you need a doctor’s note, don’t hesitate to ask your primary care provider.

Those impacted by risk factors for developing complications from the flu, or those who are already severely ill can be treated with antiviral medications within the first 48 hours of showing symptoms. These medications, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), do not eliminate symptoms but may diminish the duration and severity by about a day.

Ultimately the decision to take an antiviral medication is best left to a discussion between a patient and their health care provider. For people who are mildly ill or not at risk for complications, antiviral medication is not generally helpful. If you're not part of population at risk for complications and only have mild symptoms, then you are best to stay home, rest and treat your symptoms.

Caring for your symptoms

In addition to the basics of resting and staying hydrated, there are things you can do to treat specific flu symptoms.

Nasal congestion. Try using decongestants such as pseudophedrine (Allegra D) and/or a combination antihistamine/decongestant. Nasal saline irrigation (using a Neti Pot) can also be helpful. All of these options are available at your local pharmacy.

Keep in mind that cold and flu medicines often have a mix of medications in them. To avoid doubling up on medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl), be sure to check the ingredient label. If you have any questions about what medications can safely be taken together, ask your primary care provider or pharmacist. Also, children under 6 years of age should not use any over-the-counter cough or cold medications.

Consider sleeping in a recliner or keeping your upper body propped up with pillows in bed. This will help with secretion drainage, making sleep more comfortable and helping to prevent pneumonia. Guaifenesin (Mucinex) and/or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also be taken at bedtime.

Body aches. To reduce body aches, try taking 500 to 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen (Tylenol) every eight hours and/or 400 mg of ibuprofen (Advil) every six to eight hours. Ask your primary care provider or pharmacist about the correct dosages for young children.

Fever and chills. Adjust the thermostat accordingly, and use plenty of blankets or open windows, if needed. Acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen or naproxen (Aleve) help control fevers too. Do not take naproxen with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be taken together.

Cough. A spoonful of plain honey, honey dissolved in hot fluids, or honey-lemon flavored cough drops can all be very soothing. However, do not give any honey to children under one year of age.

Some find that rubbing mentholated topical ointment (Vicks VapoRub) on the upper chest and back of neck, or on the bottom of the feet and then wearing socks, helps to control a nighttime cough. If you smoke, consider cutting down or quitting.

Decreased appetite. You may feel less hungry than normal and your tastes might be altered. Eat what you can.

Once you are free of fever for 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medication, you may return to school or work.

When to seek immediate care

If your symptoms are not manageable at home or if you start to experience any of the following, seek additional medical help:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing and chest pain
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Persistent or worsening cough
  • Cough that brings up green or bloody saliva and mucus
  • For children: lethargy with changes in skin color

If you notice these or any other concerning symptoms, contact your primary care provider. If you need immediate attention and your primary care provider is unavailable, St. Luke’s eCare, Q Care, Urgent Care or Emergency Care can offer same-day treatment without an appointment.

To learn more about the conditions we treat through each of our immediate care options, visit slhduluth.com/WhereToGo.

This article was published in the Duluthian magazine Jan-Feb 2020 issue.

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