Everything You Need to Know About the Flu

As if we weren't already aware that the flu has reached epidemic levels this year thanks to things like this Google Flu Trends map (scary, huh?), last night's Golden Globes were a stark reminder that the glammed- and glitzed-up celebs aren't immune to the virus either.

Meryl Streep was at home recovering (No one will forget Amy Poehler's line, "Meryl Streep is not here tonight. She has the flu, and I hear she's amazing in it."), while Hugh Jackman was feeling quite miserable, he revealed in his speech when he won best actor for his performance in, well, Les Misérables. And then there was Jennifer Lawrence who, as amazingly flu-free as she looked, refused to shake Ryan Seacrest's hand pre-ceremony because she was infected.

As infected as America seems to be, there's no need to quarantine yourself until spring to stay healthy. Philip Hagen, M.D., a preventative medicine doctor and medical editor of Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies, shares everything you need to know about the flu—and your best tricks to never come down with it.

What exactly is the flu?
The term "flu" is used to refer to a broad range of conditions ranging from stomach flu—which features lovely symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—to the upper-respiratory flu, which also has fun side effects, including fever, runny nose, and cough, Dr. Hagen says. The true influenza—the one that the vaccination is designed to fight—is a respiratory illness. While colds and influenza share symptoms, such as runny nose and cough, the influenza is usually much worse than your common cold.

RELATED: Jennifer Lawrence wasn't the only jaw-dropper at the awards. See these other fit stars who wowed us at the Golden Globes!

What are the primary symptoms of the flu?

  • Fever (typically over 101 degrees)
  • Muscle aches (we're talking significant all-over soreness, not mild discomfort)
  • Fatigue or weakness (you can barely get out of bed)

I'm healthy. What are the best ways to stay that way?
First, get your flu shot each year. While it's not perfect (it's about 60 to 80 percent effective), it's your best protection, Dr. Hagen says. One study showed that, on average, people who got the flu vaccination missed a third less work time.

Then be sure to use soap and water and wash your hands frequently to keep them as germ-free as possible. Also try not to let your paws get near your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth since the viruses that cause upper-respiratory infection can be passed by small droplets in the air or on surfaces. Read: Say someone with the flu sneezes and touches the bathroom doorknob, and you unknowingly touch the knob and rub your eyes—thereby welcoming germ droplets into your body, where they can wreak havoc.

And stick to your healthy eating, moderate exercise, and adequate sleep routines, Dr. Hagen says. If you are in a rigorous training program—especially if you train outside in the cold—there is some data that indicates daily vitamin C may help prevent upper-respiratory infections.

RELATED: Still not convinced that you need a flu shot? See why you really should buckle down and get vaccinated.   

I have the flu. How do I stop feeling like crap and knock this thing out?
If you want to try an "active treatment" approach to speed healing, zinc lozenges and echinacea have some reasonable evidence of effectiveness, Dr. Hagen says. Start them when you first experience symptoms, and you may feel better somewhere between a half day to couple days more quickly. Be warned, though, that both have a metallic taste that makes some people feel nauseated.

If you're already ill, use an OTC pain reliever such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen to lower fever and decrease aches. Decongestants can be helpful for temporary reasons (like if you have public speaking or singing you must do), but they give some people palpitations and start losing their effect after a couple of days, Dr. Hagen says. And traditional cold remedies such as antihistamines really don't help much except in very specific settings. If your nose is running like Usain Bolt, an antihistamine may slow it down during the early part of a cold, but it could slow you down too, as fatigue and sleepiness are common side effects of these drugs.

Use a humidifier to prevent dry air in your bedroom, and be sure to stay hydrated with water, orange and other juices, chicken soup, and tea or warm water with honey and lemon. If you have the stomach flu, electrolyte drinks may be helpful as well, and back off on solids, eating easily digestible foods like rice and pasta in small amounts instead.

As for exercise, Dr. Hagen says you can work out through a cold, but if you have the flu, listen to your body: Do you really think swinging a kettlebell or doing CrossFit is smart when you have a fever, muscles aches, dizziness, and fatigue? Save that energy so your body can use it to fight off the infection, and if you feel you have enough strength, still cut back on the intensity of your session, Dr. Hagen adds.

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