Colds and flu

Updated 25 March 2019

How is the flu treated?

The treatment for uncomplicated flu is very simple. If there is a risk for complications, your doctor might prescribe anti-viral drugs.

In low-risk cases, and where there aren’t any signs of secondary bacterial infections, your doctor will treat your flu symptoms in very much the same way you would treat yourself: mainly with over-the-counter medications.

Paracetamol or ibuprofen treat fever and body aches, while decongestant nasal sprays or drops can be used to alleviate nasal congestion.

If the diagnosis is clear and the illness is uncomplicated, there isn’t much else to be done. Studies have shown that, in the majority of cases, the symptoms of flu subside within three to four days with or without symptom-relieving medication.

Over-the-counter cold and flu preparations cannot cure flu, but will relieve symptoms. It’s important to rest as much as possible, to avoid exercising and to stay hydrated.

People who are hospitalised for the flu, or who are very ill, as well as those at high risk of developing complications will receive antiviral treatment.

High-risk cases include: 

  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People with chronic medical conditions
  • People over 65 years of age
  • Pregnant women and those who gave birth in the preceding two weeks

Antiviral medications are most effective if initiated within 48 hours of the start of the flu illness.

If a secondary bacterial infection has developed, appropriate antibiotics will be prescribed.

Remember to complete all courses of prescribed antiviral drugs or antibiotics. This will prevent the development of resistant infections.

In more severe cases, your doctor might consider hospitalisation.

Reviewed by Cape Town-based general practitioner, Dr Dalia Hack. March 2019.

Read more:

- Symptoms of the flu

- Flu risk factors


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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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