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msnbc.com
updated 12/27/2004 1:25:54 PM ET 2004-12-27T18:25:54

You've done the right thing — you skipped the flu vaccine this year. Now, how are you going to get through the virus season without being completely knocked off your feet for a week or more? Here are some recommendations for over-the-counter and prescription remedies for your home flu kit.

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While the flu can resemble a cold, the flu has more severe symptoms: fever, achy joints, sore throat, chills, congestion, a headache and hacking cough. In addition, children sometimes come down with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea when they catch the flu.

Adults can pass the virus to others a day before they feel sick and up to 7 days after symptoms appear, according to experts. In other words, you can give someone the flu even before you know you've got it yourself. Unfortunately there are no home flu tests and although a doctor can test for it, many don't.

Even if left untreated, most influenza infections will go away within 1 or 2 weeks, although a cough and fatigue may persist for a little longer.

If you find that your condition is not getting better or if after a week you're feeling worse, consult your doctor. It's also important to be careful about dehydration, especially with children, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids.

In children, watch high fevers closely. If the child is not eating or drinking or if the temperature doesn't subside with a fever reducer, contact a pediatrician. And, if you or your child get sick again after you've started to feel better, it could be a sign of pneumonia or other dangerous complication, so see your doctor right away.

What you need:

Thermometer. One symptom of the flu is a temperature of 101 and above for adults; 103 to 105 for children.

Facial tissues. Influenza is a respiratory illness that is spread by inhaling infected droplets from a person who has the virus. Therefore, it's important to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. Keep a good supply of facial tissues nearby — every time you cough or sneeze into one, throw it away. Cover your cough or sneeze with your sleeve if you do not have a tissue.

Antibacterial soap. Hand washing with soap and warm water is considered one of the surest ways to prevent the flu. Regular soap and water is fine, but antibacterial soap is recommended by some pediatricians as an additional precaution. Wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” — twice. Alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers, available in most drugstores or supermarkets, are also helpful in stopping the spread of the flu virus. No water is needed, but be sure to rub the gel until your hands are dry.

Ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Ibuprofen-based fever reducers can lower a temperature for up to six hours and ease muscle and joint aches. Acetaminophen lowers fever for up to four hours.

Decongestant. Heavy congestion is a major symptom of the flu. An over-the-counter product containing pseudoephedrine can provide relief for adults.

Antivirals. There are four antiviral prescription medicines approved to prevent or treat influenza: amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Relenza is a powder inhaled through a plastic device.

Symmetrel, Flumadine and Tamiflu have been approved for preventing the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tamiflu is the only medication approved to treat both type A and type B flu strains in patients 1 year and older.

The flu-fighting drugs can be used by adults and children over 1, but aren't recommended for pregnant women. They need to be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms, so it's important to call the doctor as soon as you start to feel sick.

The drugs work about 70 percent to 90 percent of the time. They won’t cure the flu, but can help get you back on your feet a day earlier. None of the drugs have been shown to prevent bacterial or viral pneumonia. They also can complicate other illnesses.

Because of the severe vaccine shortage, health officials are concerned that antiviral remedies could run into short supply if a rush of sick people begin asking their doctors and pharmacies for them. As a result, the CDC is recommending them only for people who haven't been vaccinated, live in an area where the flu is active, and are at high risk of serious complications.

Avoid:
Cough medicines. If you have phlegm or a lot of excess mucous, "it's important to cough it up and spit it out," says Dr. Catherine Tom, a pediatric clinical pharmacist at Children's Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, N.Y. Phlegm keeps the virus in the body. For that reason, doctors don't recommend taking a cough suppressant during the day, although it's acceptable to take a cough medicine at night to help you sleep.

Decongestants for children. Kids don’t benefit from over-the-counter cough or sinus medicines, pediatricians say.

Mixing doses. Use caution when mixing over-the-counter drugs. Be aware of specific ingredients, especially acetaminophen, in different medications. "It's easy to overdose on individual ingredients, so it's important to read the label and follow instructions," says Tom.

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