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That chill in the air isn’t just a sign that winter is coming — it means flu season is upon us. Catching the flu almost certainly means a week or more of misery (pass the aspirin!), but, unlike less severe bugs such as the cold virus, the flu can also be life-threatening.

Taking the right steps when you first realize you have the flu could make the difference between a smooth recovery and a trip to the ER. So we talked to Dr. Salvatore Cannizzo, M.D., the medical director at Mount Sinai Doctors in New York, NY about the best way to deal with the flu at home — and how to know when you need to see a professional.

If you’re in a high-risk group, see a doctor ASAP

The flu can make anyone feel awful, but it can be an especially serious health risk for some people, says Cannizzo. If you’re over age 65 or you have a compromised immune system — from a medical condition, like HIV, or as a side effect of medical treatments like chemotherapy — see a doctor when you first suspect you have the flu, since you may not be able to fight it off as effectively. You should also see your doctor if you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease since it might aggravate your lung condition.

Pregnant women and small children (ages 2 and younger) also face a higher risk of complications with the flu, and consulting a doctor can identify the measures you should take to stay safe.

Addressing the flu at home

If you’re not part of a high risk group and you’re otherwise healthy, chances are you can manage your symptoms at home. Over-the-counter cold and flu medications can suppress your cough, relieve aches and pains, and night-time formulations can even help you catch some ZZZs. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and aspirin also reduce your fever, which may help you feel better.

Get well soon by prioritizing a little R&R (finally, an excuse for a Netflix binge!). Sleeping well and resting throughout the day helps your body spend its energy on fighting off the flu virus, and staying home from work also helps keep those around you healthier. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and sip your favorite herbal tea to stay hydrated. Avoid caffeine-containing beverages, since they can be dehydrating, and nix any alcohol, since it will make you feel worse.

Cannizzo also recommends a childhood favorite: chicken soup. “It’s not clear why, but it seems to be effective to address the coughing and mucus production that occurs in the cold and the flu.”

When to see the doctor

Most of the time, the worst of your symptoms will subside within a few days, and the rest will phase out over the coming week or two. But more serious symptoms can indicate that you’re not fighting off the flu properly, and signal that you need medical help.

Check in with your doctor if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • A fever above 100.5 °F

And book a doctor’s appointment if your symptoms seem to get better then start getting worse since that might indicate that you have a more serious infection.

Preventing your next flu

When it comes to prevention, washing your hands and covering your mouth when you sneeze helps limit the spread of the flu virus. That may protect those around you from getting the flu — and potentially re-infecting you with a slightly modified strain later.

For real protection, though, getting the flu vaccine reigns supreme, says Cannizzo. Anyone 6 months of age or older should be vaccinated, and the flu vaccine is especially important if you’re around people in high-risk groups (or if you’re in one yourself). And while there are a few types of flu vaccines — including a quadrivalent vaccine that protects you from four flu strains instead of three, and a stronger version of the vaccine for high-risk individuals — what’s most important is getting vaccinated, period, he says. “Better to get a flu shot than no shot at all.”

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