No Flu Shot and Now You Have the Flu: What to Do?

The flu may wipe you out for a week or two, but certain steps can help ease the symptoms.

Everyday Health Archive
Flu and the common cold share similar symptoms, but the flu usually comes on stronger and lasts longer.Shuttersock (2)

With flu season in full swing, your likelihood of getting the influenza virus is growing, especially if you didn’t get the flu vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that so far this season there have been at least 9.7 million flu illnesses, and these numbers will only climb in the weeks to come. (Flu cases usually peak between December and February.)

While flu can make you feel much more miserable than the common cold, symptoms can often be treated at home and improve in a week or two. Still, the illness is not to be taken lightly: 87,000 hospitalizations and 4,800 deaths from flu have been reported so far this season, according to the CDC.

“Key indicators that track influenza illness in the United States remain high throughout the country,” says Eric A. Weiss, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California. “If you think you have the flu, see or talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.”

How to Know It’s Really Flu

Some of the effects of this respiratory infection can be similar to the common cold: dry cough, headache, sore throat, runny nose, and loss of appetite. The flu, however, usually packs a more powerful punch than a cold.

Flu symptoms can come on fast and make the patient feel increasingly weak. Individuals can be overcome with abrupt chills, a sudden fever that gradually increases, muscle aches, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

“Colds are caused by different viruses from influenza and usually come on over days and cause mild illness,” says Dr. Weiss. “Most people with colds usually do not feel bad enough to stay in bed.”

The CDC recommends taking care of the illness by resting and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help relieve fever and muscle aches. Because the virus is highly contagious, staying home is also important so as not to spread the sickness to others.

When the Going Gets Tough

If symptoms get too extreme, individuals need to seek out immediate medical attention. Some of the danger signs to look out for, according to Weiss, are a high or prolonged fever lasting four to five days, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, not drinking enough fluids, pain or pressure in the chest, dizziness, and severe, persistent vomiting.

“If you’re getting worse, if you’re having any difficulty breathing, or if you are so sick that you can’t take fluids and are getting dehydrated, you absolutely need to seek medical care,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

He advises certain more vulnerable populations — such as adults over age 65, children, pregnant women, and people with chronic illness — to be on the alert for these extreme signs.

When to Consider Antivirals

Some patients, especially those who are at high risk for complications, may want to consider using an antiviral medication. Although they do not actually kill the virus, these medications stop it from replicating or reproducing in the body. They can be helpful whether you have been vaccinated or not.

Taken within the first 24 to 48 hours, these prescription drugs lessen the severity of illness and slightly reduce the time that you feel sick. Dr. Schaffner says they cut flu duration by about a day.

Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) are both antiviral therapies taken twice a day for five days. Rapivab (peramivir) is a single-dose medication, but it is administered intravenously over a period of 15 to 30 minutes.

Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil), the newest of the antivirals, requires swallowing a one-and-done single-dose tablet.

All flu strains tested so far this year have been susceptible to these antiviral medications, according to Weiss.

Opinions differ about who should take antivirals.

“There is no absolute right answer,” says Schaffner. “Here at Vanderbilt, our pediatricians and infectious disease doctors are pretty assertive treaters and often prescribe it, but many other doctors believe if you can keep up with your hydration and you’re not horribly sick, you can just tough it out.”

How Vaccinations Help

The CDC suggests that everyone older than six months get the flu shot. Still, the vaccine is no guarantee to keep the virus away. The public health agency estimates that the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of illness by 40 to 60 percent.

It’s never too late to get vaccinated, according to Weiss. Even if you have had the flu, the shot can be protective because the predominant strain that is circulating now may change to a different virus over the winter months. So a person could potentially get the flu twice in a season.

Weiss advises that people with mild upper respiratory infections (colds) get vaccinated even if they are sick, but people who have moderate to severe illnesses with or without a fever should wait until they recover or first consult with their doctor before getting vaccinated.

So far this season, the most common type of flu being seen nationally, especially in children, is influenza B. From testing done by the CDC so far, about 58 percent of the influenza B viruses are covered by this year’s vaccine, according to Weiss.

“Even people who have been vaccinated can get sick with the flu,” he says.

Although vaccinated individuals stricken with flu typically have symptoms that are less harsh, they can also benefit from treatment from antivirals.

“Vaccination doesn’t influence the effectiveness of the treatment,” says Schaffner. “The vaccine makes it likely that you will have a less severe infection, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get treatment in addition.”