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You have the flu: Now what?

Flu is flying high this season, warns the World Health Organisation (WHO). What should you do if you’re infected?

15 July 2019
By Glynis Horning

So you didn’t get around to having that flu vaccination, and the office lurgy has caught up with you. It’s more than the stuffy nose, itchy throat, watery eyes and cough of a common cold. You’re spiking a fever, have the chills, your head pounds and your muscles and joints ache. Yes, it’s the flu. So what should you do?

Determine if you’re at risk for complications

If you’re over age 65, overweight, pregnant, or have a chronic illness such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, you’re at high risk of complications: “See a medical professional sooner rather than later, compared to other patients,” says Cape Town GP Dr Neville Wellington. Flu is a viral infection, not a bacterial one, so antibiotics can’t help unless it develops into bacterial pneumonia. However, you may be prescribed an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza. The catch is that you need to start these within 48 hours of the first symptoms for them to be effective, so don’t delay.

Also see a health professional if you find yourself painfully short of breath, coughing up copious amounts of green or bloody phlegm, or your fever goes on for longer than three days. Don’t take a chance.

If you’re not at risk: Stay in bed

Otherwise, your most important course of action is inaction – stay in bed, says Dr Wellington. Your body needs to rest so it can focus on repairing damage at a cellular level. This will help you heal faster; if you push on with work, you risk having a low-grade illness for longer, or developing life-threatening pneumonia. With bed rest, you can generally recover in seven to 10 days. Stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever goes without use of medication.

Remember to keep your distance

Keep your distance from loved ones (two to three metres), don’t share utensils, and see that you all wash your hands often to prevent germs being transferred. If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with your elbow (not hand) or a tissue, and flush dirty tissues down the loo.

Humidity is your friend

Consider investing in a humidifier. A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that a key reason people are more prone to getting flu is low humidity. Researchers at Yale University found low humidity impaired the body’s immune response in three ways: by preventing the hair-like cilia in the cells of airways from removing viral particles and mucus; by reducing the ability of these cells to repair damage caused by the flu virus in the lungs; and by reducing the ability of interferons (signalling proteins) released by the virus-infected cells to alert nearby cells to the viral threat. They concluded that increasing water vapour in the air with humidifiers at home, school or work could help reduce flu symptoms and hasten recovery.

Eat to boost your immunity

You may lack appetite, but aim to help your body by having a variety of vegetables and fruit, in a soup, stew or fruit salad. Those with deep colours, like pumpkin, salad greens and berries, are richer in micronutrients, says Gauteng dietitian Anja Smant. Include protein from fish, chicken or a little lean red meat (which is high in iron and zinc important for the function of certain immune cells), and lentils and pulses. Vegetarians can also opt for eggs (three or four a week), tofu and soya.

Drink plenty of water to keep mucous fluid and easier to expel, says Dr Wellington. Water also helps the digestion of food, carries nutrients to cells and provides a healthy, moist environment for ear, nose and throat tissues.

Speak to your friendly Clicks pharmacist

Ask your medical professional or pharmacist about over-the-counter medications to help relieve flu symptoms – paracetamol for pain and fever, throat lozenges and perhaps a decongestant.

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