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It starts innocently enough. Picking up your child from school, you hear the surrounding sniffles. Then the coughs and sneezes start to increase around your office. Flu season has officially arrived, and you’re doing everything in your power not to have anyone in your household get sick. While you can’t control the school or office environment, you can control what’s in your home.

Assembling a flu-ready kit at home is the first step toward being prepared for the months ahead. Gather the essentials now! The last thing you want to be doing when you (or a child or spouse) succumb to flu is making a late night run to the drugstore for supplies. Here’s what you’ll need.

The best way to combat flu is obviously not to get it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that means getting the flu vaccine every year. It’s the single best tool you have for preventing the flu in yourself and others.

People can get vaccinated as early as 6 months of age. Getting vaccinated is especially important for high-risk individuals such as young children, pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with a weakened immune system or other serious medical condition. These individuals should also see a healthcare provider within two days if they think they have the flu. It’s possible that prescription antiviral medication will be needed.

Washing your hands often is another important step in flu prevention. Some of the tips below can also help defend against the flu by keeping germs at bay.

Unfortunately, even with preventive measures, you can still get the flu. Overcoming it takes time as your body rids itself of the virus. It usually takes anywhere from three to seven days to recover. However, you may still continue to feel tired and have a cough for up to two weeks.

In the meantime, do your best to rest and drink plenty of fluids. To keep others around you from getting ill, stay home until you have been fever-free for 24 hours. In addition, to help soothe your symptoms or nurse your child with flu back to health, have these remedies and products stashed within easy reach.

Learn more: Do you have the flu? »

The flu spreads through contact with the flu virus. It can spread through the air by sneezing or coughing and can end up on surfaces as well. Cleaning and disinfecting your hands frequently makes it harder for the virus to pass on to you and others. The best option is to wash your hands with soap and water. When you’re on-the-go, the next option is hand sanitizer, an alcohol-based rub, to kill germs. The CDC says to look for hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol for effective germ-fighting power. When using it, make sure to rub your hands together until they are dry. While hand sanitizer is not a substitute for washing, it’s helpful when you’re not near a sink. If you have teenagers, it can be useful to send a small travel bottle to school with them to use before meals and snacks. Small children should not use hand sanitizer unsupervised.

Spreading germs is a two-way street: You give and you get. To prevent yourself from spreading germs to others, keep tissues on hand. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and encourage your kids to do the same. Keep a box on your desk and a to-go pack in your bag for when the unexpected “achoo” comes along. And make sure to dispose of that tissue as soon as you can.

You can catch the flu not just from people, but also from infected objects. The CDC says that human influenza viruses can live on surfaces for between two and eight hours. Using disinfectant spray (like Lysol or Clorox) can sanitize surfaces that could potentially be infected. Try to develop a routine to disinfect areas where you live or work to prevent the spread of viruses.

While we all know the old “hand to head” trick when checking our body temperature, using a thermometer detects if you actually have a fever. While having a higher-than-normal temp is not a sure sign of the flu, it’s a common symptom. Monitor your fever and other symptoms to determine if you have the flu or not. The World Health Organization defines a fever for the flu or flu-like illness as being greater than 100.4°F.

Stuffy noses are an uncomfortable and annoying side effect of the flu. Over-the-counter decongestants (like Sudafed or Mucinex) can help clear up congestion and make you more comfortable, especially at bedtime. Decongestants narrow the blood vessels in your nasal lining to reduce blood flow to the area, which in turn, reduces swelling and relieves the blocked-up feeling.

Over-the-counter cold medications should not be given to children under 2.

These medicines come in pill form, drops, or nasal sprays, but be aware that oral medications are slower to take effect than nasal sprays. If you choose to use nasal sprays or drops, don’t use them for more than three days. They cause a rebound affect, making your nasal congestion worse. If you have any health problems or take prescription medication, check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicines.

Neti pots and nasal washes can also be an effective way to treat nasal congestion without the possible side effects from medications.

To help lower a fever, calm a sore throat, and relieve headaches, body aches, and all the other pains that come along with flu, take ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Both medications lower your body temperature to reduce fever and alleviate pain.

Persistent coughing is a common flu symptom and can wreak havoc on your body, causing everything from nagging headaches to upper body pain. Coughing is your body’s way of responding to an irritant. When you have the flu, cough drops can soothe your throat and quiet your cough. Consider ones with menthol and those sweetened with honey. If you frequently wake up from coughing in the night, keep a few cough drops by your bed for quick relief. The Mayo Clinic advises that children under age 6 not be given cough drops because of the risk of choking. Instead, look to option 8 (below) to help your little one.

You can also drink warm liquids, like soup or tea, to ease your sore throat and cough. Drinking fluids is key to helping your throat stay moist and preventing further irritation. With soup, try to stay away from those with high acidity (like tomato soups) because they may cause more irritation. Instead, try broth-based soups. Chicken soup is a good option, and not just because grandma said so! It has been shown in studies to block the movement of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that initiates inflammation, thereby reducing nasal congestion and sore throats. Other warm liquids you can try are caffeine-free tea or warm water with honey. The Mayo Clinic suggests gargling with a saltwater mixture of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 4 to 8 ounces of warm water. One-half teaspoon of baking soda can be added to the salt mixture as well, to further ease throat irritation. After gargling, spit out the solution.

Yes! You can contract the flu through contact with others who have the virus. You only need to be 6 feet away from others to be infected. In fact, someone can spread the flu up to a day before any signs of symptoms start, which means you can be infected by people who don’t even know they are sick yet.

Most people with the flu do get better with time. Young children, pregnant women, older people, those with a weak immune system, and those with serious medical conditions should see their doctor within two days of the start of symptoms. If a person does need prescription antiviral medications, it’s best to start them early. Should your symptoms continue to get worse and you are otherwise healthy, visit your doctor so you can be checked for any complications. This will ensure that you get the treatment you need.


Help! I didn’t get a flu shot yet and it’s already flu season. Is it too late to get one?

Anonymous patient


Flu season in the United States is typically from October to May. Once vaccinated, it only takes two weeks for the vaccine to become effective. Bottom line, even if flu season is already upon us, you still have time to benefit from the vaccination. The more people that are vaccinated against the flu, the less risk of illness there is for everyone in the community.

Judith Marcin, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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Read more: When do you need to see a doctor for your flu? »