Caring for a Loved One Who Has the Flu

Despite our best efforts at prevention--hand scrubbing, disinfecting, coughing into elbows, avoiding handshakes--a virus sometimes weasels its way in. Follow the tips below to prevent the flu from spreading, and learn how to care for a loved one with the flu.  

Know the Symptoms
It's difficult to distinguish the flu from a cold, but it often manifests as a severe cold. The flu might also cause aches, chills, fever and exhaustion. And while a stuffy, runny nose probably means you simply have a cold, discomfort in your chest could signal the flu instead.

Vomiting and diarrhea are also hallmarks of the flu in children, although what most people call stomach flu is not a flu at all. Watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting are really viral gastroenteritis.

So, if you're run down with a stuffy nose and some mild aches, you probably have a cold. Severe aches, exhaustion, fever, nausea, and diarrhea and vomiting in children points to the flu.

Stop the Spread
It can be hard to be a compassionate caregiver when you're worried about getting sick yourself. How can you stop the spread of the flu when someone you're close to has it?

You probably know the obvious tips: Keep your distance from a sick person, and wash your hands frequently if someone in your household has the flu, being sure to scrub for at least 20 seconds. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth.

Finally, disinfect surfaces and objects regularly, especially if they were touched or handled by a person with the flu. That includes bathroom and kitchen counters, which tend to be among the germiest places in your home, as well as doorknobs, light switches and faucet handles.

In a study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paper masks also helped keep healthy caretakers flu-free. Findings suggested that the masks prevented healthy household member from touching their eyes, nose and mouth after being exposed to the virus.

Keep an eye on those most susceptible to the flu, too. For example, hold small children with their chins to your shoulder when they're sick, so that virus particles will travel away from you when they sneeze or cough. If you have elderly family members or individuals who are at higher risk of complications (due to existing chronic illness), ask a health-care provider if antiviral medications are appropriate to prevent them from getting the flu when someone nearby is sick.

Home Care Tips
If a family member has the flu, create a designated room where he or she can rest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that only one healthy household member enter this sick room to serve as a caregiver.
If possible, use an open window or fan to keep air circulating, and ask the sick person to follow typical precautions, including covering his or her mouth and nose while sneezing and throwing away used tissues.

If you've visited a medical provider, follow his or her instructions. If not, treat the flu symptomatically. Encourage the sick person to rest and drink clear fluids to prevent dehydration, and try over-the-counter remedies for congestion, sore throat, fever and pain. Remember that pharmacists are trained to help you pick the right medication, even without a prescription.

In addition, simple home remedies recommended by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services include using a cool compress for fever, gargling with salt water for a sore throat and using a humidifier to ease breathing.

When to Call a Doctor
Most cases of the flu resolve on their own, though symptoms usually take a week or two to disappear. In some cases, however, symptoms become serious enough that medical attention is necessary. If you observe any of the following symptoms as a flu patient or caregiver, seek medical attention:
  • Seizures or loss of consciousness
  • Sharp chest pains, especially when breathing
  • Difficulty breathing or bluish skin
  • Dizziness or confusion, particularly if it begins suddenly
  • A 103-degree fever or higher
  • Flu symptoms that fade then reappear with fever, increased coughing and/or chest pain
Remember that small children, elderly people and those with chronic illnesses may be more susceptible to complications from the flu, and should be watched more closely and taken to a physician more quickly at the first sign of trouble. If in doubt, seek help.

When caring for a loved one, following routine, hygienic procedures to prevent the virus from spreading is among the most effective ways to keep yourself healthy. Protect yourself by isolating the sick person, washing your hands thoroughly and frequently, and keeping your home clean and well-ventilated.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives,", accessed on September 5, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Follow the Sick Room Rules,", accessed on September 5, 2013., "Caring for Someone with the Flu,", accessed on September 5, 2013., "Treatment,", accessed on September 5, 2013.

Harvard Medical School, "When to Contact Your Doctor about Flu Symptoms,", accessed on September 5, 2013.

MIT New, "How to Stop the Flu,", accessed on September 5, 2013.