Image: nurse and patient
A nurse administers an experimental nasal spray flu vaccine to a young patient.
By MSNBC contributor

It’s a familiar, misery-filled scene: aches, nausea, fever, chills and a week spent home alone with a diet of fluids and talk shows. But there are steps you can take to help beat the flu bug — even avoid it altogether.

Vaccination officers the best protection, says Dr. Carolyn Buxton Bridges, a medical epidemiologist with the influenza branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Flu season hasn’t reached a full roar yet so you still have some time to get immunized.

The CDC urges immunizations for those most at risk for serious flu complications, including the elderly and people with conditions like cancer, asthma, liver or heart disease. Those who are in close contact with people at high risk, such as health professionals and those living with immune-compromised people, are also advised to get flu shots.

But vaccination is a good idea for anyone who simply wants to avoid the lost work days and discomfort that the flu brings, Bridges says.

Beyond immunization
In addition to vaccination, experts say you can help fend off the flu by keeping your immune defenses strong. That means getting proper sleep, eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise.

Dr. James F. Jones, a senior staff physician at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, also advises trying to avoid people you know are sick and taking preventive precautions.

Such safety measures include washing your hands frequently and keeping them away from your face and eyes, thus minimizing the likelihood that the virus will be transmitted from your hands to your bloodstream through your mucous membranes.

When the bug bites
So what should you do if you get sick?

“Stay home, stay in bed and try not to sneeze on your friends,” says Bridges. Throw used tissues in the trash immediately rather than allowing them to contaminate table tops or other common areas, she adds.

Jones advises plenty of fluids and grandma’s favorite elixir — chicken soup. Besides being comforting, he says, the salt in the soup helps replace sodium that’s been lost from the body because of the illness.

And just in time for this year’s influenza season, flu sufferers got two new treatments — the first new remedies in nearly a decade. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved zanamivir (brand name Relenza), an inhaled drug that’s been found to reduce symptoms of and speed recovery from both influenza A and B if taken within two days of the first symptoms, and oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu), an oral agent with similar results. The drugs may also help prevent the bug from spreading to others. (Read the latest reports on zanamivir and osteltamivir. )

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Two other prescription drugs — amantadine and rimantadine — can also help reduce symptoms, but they only work against influenza A. And they too must be taken within 48 hours.

Acetaminophen is the drug of choice for reducing fever. And numerous other over-the-counter cold and flu products provide relief of other symptoms.

Above all, says Bridges, take it easy when you’re sick. “Give your body some time to heal.”

Herbal products?
As for popular supplements like echinacea, vitamin C and zinc, many experts say it’s still too soon to know whether they help prevent or treat the flu.

“The data aren’t very supportive of these being terribly important in prevention,” Jones says.

Dr. Bruce Goldberg, an associate professor of family medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland who has been studying echinacea, agrees.

“The research is really in its infancy in terms of enough published information in which to base opinions one way or another,” he says. “There are a lot of anecdotal reports but not a lot of well-done studies.”

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