Treating the Flu: Expert Answers to Your Top Questions

Dr. Charles Gerba answers the most common questions regarding influenza treatment.

Influenza, The flu, Treatment, Workplace

Uh oh — you or someone you know has the flu. What should you do now?

If you run your own company, or employ a small workforce, influenza can have a detrimental impact on your business. If you or a vital employee falls ill, you should take the appropriate measures to reduce the virus' impact.

Staples asked Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona who studies the transmission of pathogens through the environment, to answer some of the most commonly asked questions this time of year about treating the flu. 

How can someone easily tell if they have the flu and not just a cold?

Usually, you can tell the difference over the common cold because you get muscle aches and you get a headache more so than you do with the common cold. The common cold is largely in your nose, the nasal passages, where the flu is really in your lungs. It usually starts with a fever and then your muscles and bones tend to hurt, and then it gets progressively worse. Most people end up staying home at least a few days with the flu.

If I have a cold, am I more susceptible to getting the flu?

Usually not. Usually, the problem with the flu is you're more susceptible to getting other infections, like bacterial infections of the lung or respiratory infections like the cold. One of the problems with the flu is it weakens you a lot. It's really kind of the reverse of what most people think. It's really not the cold that's going to give you the flu. It's the flu that's going to lead to another type of respiratory infection, like the cold.

Every year, people die from the flu. Why is that? Do these people have anything in common?

Usually, between 3,000 and 50,000 people die per year from the flu. It's usually younger people and older individuals, but it's possible for any age group. That's why the flu should always be taken seriously. Usually, these people are very young and very old, and their immune system doesn't work quite as well or they haven't seen these types of flu before.

Also, some years the strain of flu is much more virulent and more capable of causing serious illness. This year, the particular flu going around most commonly is fairly virulent, a little bit more serious, so we're a little bit more concerned with deaths.

So, then, if I do get the flu, should I go to the hospital?

No, you don't need to go to the hospital with the flu. But you should see your physician if you're seriously ill or if you're an older individual.

If I have the flu, what's going to help me get rid of it?

Well, usually with most virus infections, you just have to wait it out. Now, they do have certain types of medications available that can shorten the length of time you have the flu, or the symptoms at least. It's best to go to your physician and ask if that's going to benefit you or if it's worth your while.

Should I wear a face mask if I have the flu?

Yes, that's a good idea. If you wear a face mask, the people around you may benefit from that. It won't do you much good, but certainly, the people around you might be pleased that you did it.

If I stay home from work because I have the flu, how will I know that I'm not contagious anymore and can go back to the office?

Usually, if you don't have fever for 24 hours, you're not considered infectious. The other thing is, you are infectious about one day before you come down with the flu. That's why it's always better to be preventive and use hand sanitizers and disinfect key surfaces, because some people can be excreting the flu virus without really knowing it.

If I've already had the flu this season, can I get it again?

Potentially yes. There are many different types of flu viruses, so it's possible. It's not likely because there's usually some protection, but it's possible. The strains change every year — there's influenza Type A, influenza Type B, for example — so you potentially could get infected with different strains of influenza virus.

This information is provided for general informational purposes only, and should not be considered as offering individualized medical advice.