Tip Sheet: What to Do if You Get the Flu

Influenza, or the “flu,” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus that infects the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Although symptoms in some people are mild, the flu can cause severe illness, and even death. Older adults bear the greatest burden from the flu. Compared to younger people, older adults are at higher risk for serious flu complications, including bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of other medical conditions such as heart failure, diabetes, and lung disease. People age 65 years and older account for 50-70% of flu-related hospitalizations, and for 70-90% of flu-related deaths. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot every year at the start of the flu season (early fall).

Flu Symptoms

The flu is different from a cold. Cold symptoms are usually milder than flu, and people with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than people with the flu. The flu often comes on suddenly and the symptoms are more severe. Some common symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever or chills (older adults may not have a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

Stop the Spread of All Flu Viruses With These Simple Precautions

  • Get a flu shot every year at the start of the flu season in early fall.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or with an alcohol-based hand rub, especially after coughing or sneezing, and before eating.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, use the upper part of your sleeve.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, especially when someone is sick.
  • Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Next Steps if You Get the Flu

If you get sick with flu-like symptoms, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
  • Call your healthcare provider. If you or someone you care for has symptoms of the flu, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Your provider can prescribe an antiviral drug to make the symptoms milder, shorten the time you are sick, and prevent complications from the flu. These medications work best when started early – within 2 days of becoming sick, so call your provider as soon as possible.
  • Stay home. If you think you might have the flu, stay home for seven days since your symptoms began, or until your symptoms have been gone for 24 hours. This will keep you from spreading the virus to others.
  • Get some much-needed rest. To help your body fight the flu, get enough sleep and drink plenty of fluids, such as water, juice, and soup, to prevent dehydration. Because you might be cold one minute and hot the next, wear layers so you can easily add or remove clothes as needed.
  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Because you might be cold one minute and hot the next, wear layers so you can easily add or remove clothes as needed.
  • Follow advice from health officials. You can find up-to-date information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Look out for emergency warning signs. 
Call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • High or prolonged fever (above 101-102°F or a fever lasting more than 3-5 days)
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Fainting or near-fainting 
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting and/or the inability to keep down food or water

Anyone living alone should get help quickly, instead of waiting. 


 Last updated October 2022


Back To Top