What to do when you have the flu
Written by Dr Keith Grimes
, 5 min read
Coming down with a cold or flu? Don’t worry. We’re here to help, with loads of proven self-care tips to get you on the road to recovery. Here’s a guide to what works for the most common symptoms in the colder months.
Many are easy things you can do at home, but remember that your pharmacist can help too. They’ll be able to offer advice and recommend treatments. Do keep in mind that if you have COVID-19, you’ll need to isolate at home for the full 10 days. So if you need to stock up at the pharmacy, ask someone to go for you.
Speed your recovery
If you’re under the weather, whatever your symptoms, these simple self-care steps will help you feel better:
- Drink enough1 When you’re ill, it’s easy to lose more fluids than usual. For example, if a fever is making you sweat, you have diarrhoea or vomiting, or your nose is streaming. These symptoms put you at risk of dehydration, which can make you feel extra tired and dizzy.2 So drink enough to stay hydrated. As well as water, try sports drinks or juices to give you energy, especially if you’re off your food.
- Rest and sleep1 Get plenty of rest to support your immune system.3 Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, but be guided by how you feel. You might need more when you're ill. You may feel like taking it easy during the day too, though normal activity won’t prolong your illness if you have a cold.4
Deal with a fever
Fever is part of your body’s natural response to an infection such as a virus. The higher body temperature makes it harder for the virus to thrive. But it can also make you feel really unwell. Here’s how to feel more comfortable:
- Keep the room temperature just right An overheated or cold draughty room may make it harder to regulate your body temperature. The World Health Organisation recommends an indoor temperature of between 18°C and 22-23°C.5
- Wear loose, light clothes or pyjamas Tight-fitting clothes can make you more likely to overheat, or feel uncomfortable if you’re sweating.
- Don’t take a cold bath or sponge down with cold water6 This could make you shiver, which can actually increase your core temperature.
- Take paracetamol or ibuprofen, if you feel you need it4 Pain medications such as paracetamol bring down a high temperature, as well as easing any aches and pains. Make sure you follow the advice on the pack and be careful about dosing if you’re taking other cold and flu remedies.
Find relief from a cough
Coughs are common with any respiratory virus. They can be exhausting, interrupting your sleep and leaving you with a sore throat or chest. Try these steps to get some relief:
- Drink lemon and honey4 Honey can work just as well as cough medicine. Add the juice of half a lemon and 1 or 2 teaspoons of honey to a cup of hot water.
- Inhale menthol7 Menthol, for example in a chest rub or drops on a tissue, can reduce coughing. Follow the advice on the pack.
- Moisten the air with a humidifier8 Use a room humidifier, or save money and take a steamy shower or bath.
- Try pelargonium9 There is some evidence that the herbal remedy pelargonium may relieve coughs. Syrups and tablets are available from some pharmacies and health shops.
- Cough syrup can help9 Different medications can work for different types of cough, and aren’t suitable for everyone, so it’s best to ask a pharmacist for advice.
Soothe a sore throat
A sore throat can be troublesome to treat, but these steps should help:
- Gargle with salt water10 Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass full of warm water and gargle, taking care not to swallow it.
- Try medicated lozenges10 Ask your pharmacist for one containing a local anaesthetic, a pain medication or an antiseptic agent to relieve the pain.
- Suck hard sweets (sugar-free to save your teeth)9 If swallowing isn’t too painful, you might find that sucking sweets soothes minor irritation.
- Have warm drinks A warm drink is soothing, but avoid very hot, fizzy or citrus drinks as these can make a sore throat feel worse.11
That blocked up feeling in your nose is caused not just by mucus, but also swelling of the lining of the nose itself.12 So blowing hard all day won’t necessarily clear your nostrils, and could even give you a nose bleed. Blow your nose gently, and try these as well:
- Steam inhalation4 No need to invest in a gadget. A steamy shower or bath can do the trick, or sitting in the bathroom with the shower running. Just take care not to scold yourself.
- Vapour rubs4 Try a balm containing menthol and eucalyptus. You can rub these onto your chest, or have someone rub them on your back to soothe congestion.
- Decongestant4 Cold remedies generally contain a decongestant. If you’re trying one of these, take care to check the dose of paracetamol or other medications so you don’t take too much by mistake. Or you can buy separate decongestant medication from the pharmacy.
So whatever your symptoms, you don’t need to suffer. Follow our simple self-care tips and pay a visit to your pharmacist if you want more support, and you’ll soon be back to full health.
- Common cold. NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/, published 4 February 2021
- Dehydration. NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/dehydration/, published 9 August 2019
- How sleep affects immunity. Sleep Foundation. www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/how-sleep-affects-immunity, published 19 November 2020
- Common cold. NHS Clinical Knowledge Summaries. https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/common-cold/management/management/, published September 2021
- WHO Housing and Health Guidelines 2018. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535285/#ch5.s2, accessed 3 November 2021
- High temperature (fever) in children. NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/fever-in-children/, published December 2020
- Morice AH, McGarvey L & Pavord I. Recommendations for the management of cough in adults. Thorax 2006;61:i1-i24 https://thorax.bmj.com/content/61/suppl_1/i1
- Cough. Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/definition/SYM-20050846?p=1, published 13 June 202
- Cough. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. NHS. https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/cough/management/management/#acute-cough, published May 2021
- Sore throat - acute. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. NHS. https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/sore-throat-acute/management/management/, published January 2021
- First Aid: Coughing. Nemours KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cough-sheet.html, published June 2018
- Non-allergic rhinitis. NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/non-allergic-rhinitis/, published 3 May 2019
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.