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The flu strikes silently. As children, we’re content to bounce about from playground to nap time to toy store to recess, and if we have a cough or the sniffles the only person likely to notice is a parent. As we grow older, our own lives become so jumbled with extracurriculars, sports, college applications, that there’s scant time to worry about a recurring cough. All concern for the immune system disappears in college, when doing a kegstand takes precedence over 200 pages of history reading, and being hungover in lecture the next morning is a rite of passage. We’re essentially too busy to notice that we haven’t washed our hands, and there’s a tickle at the back of our throats, or that dull thud in our temples is now unavoidable.

For anywhere from the next 48 hours to two weeks, you will be a watery, disheveled wreck, unable to rest and unable to move about. Professors will be e-mailed, the health center nurse will maintain a wary distance, and the advice proffered by her colleague will be scribbled illegibly on a Post-It. You need to know what to do when you get the flu. You need to have a plan: presenting, Influenza Infiltration, your step-by-step guide to battle and defeat the flu.

Day One

Your throat feels ticklish. It hurts to swallow, and you find yourself reaching for warm drinks to soothe the ache. In this event, stop consuming the following: coffee (if you drink it black, the liquid’s bitterness will irritate your throat; you also don’t need the caffeine boost when you’re likely to take other medication to combat the cold; milk only encourages the phlegm in your system); orange juice (people are always surprised by this, but while there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself an extra dose of Vitamin C, the acidity, like coffee, will irritate your throat). Start drinking lukewarm water. Instead of reaching for your peach-pomegranate-purple peony scented hand sanitizer, start washing your hands with warm water before and after every meal.

And, depending on your/your roommates’/friends’ resources, do one of the following:

  1. Boil water in a kettle. In a teapot/large mug, add the following: half teaspoon of powdered ginger (or grate in the fresh stuff if you’ve got it), a few cloves and/or a few cardamom pods (rub them between your fingers to release the oils), and two teabags (any brand) of tea that has lemon and/or ginger. Options include Twinnings’ Lemon & Ginger, Bigelow’s Lemon Ginger or Lemon Lift – anything British, really, is a good bet. Pour boiling water over the concoction and steep for five minutes. Pour into a mug – do not add milk – and sip slowly and deeply. I threw this recipe together two weeks ago when the flu struck, and it single-handedly rescued my throat.
  2. If you’re not a big lemon and/or ginger fan and prefer chai, no worries – any teabag of chai will have essentially the same ingredients in powdered form, so making tea with it will be fine.
  3. If you don’t have the spices/chai teabags available, grab the nearest herbal tea – chamomile is best – and top the mug of boiled water+teabag with a slice of lemon. Allow this to steep – you don’t want to drink lemony hot water. The herbs will help to clear the congestion, and the steam rising from the tea will circulate through your respiratory system.

Day Two, Morning

The ticklish throat is full-blown sore, you’re congested, the nose is running, and you feel dazed. That latter most symptom is the beginnings of a fever. Write e-mails to your professors immediately – teachers are almost always in favor of students staying home to get better instead of wheezing in class and distributing germs in class. If an assignment is due, e-mail it to the teacher and a friend, asking the latter to drop it off when he/she can. If the latter is not possible, let the prof know – so long as they have a digital copy on time, illness is a sufficient excuse. And if something is due that you didn’t get to because of the flu, CC the TA on your e-mail to the professor – TAs were students more recently than their bosses, and are likely to sympathize.

After all that, do the following:

  1. Turn off the computer.
  2. Put your cellphone on silent. Put away all electronic gadgets that utilize your vision – your eyes need the rest. It’s fine to put the iPod on a dock and listen to upbeat tunes when you’ve got the flu, but avoid the iPad/tablet/GameBoy (do people still have those?). My solution? Fire up the podcast queue on your iPod. You don’t have to watch anything, and you get to catch up with ‘WTF with Marc Maron,’ ‘This American Life,’ ‘Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ and ‘The Moth.’ When I was sick this month, I really wanted to be read to. For the single twenty-something college student in the 21st century, podcasts are the answer. (Extra tip: choose funny podcasts. Laughter really is the best medicine, and a good way to alleviate being miserably sick is to listen to your favorite comedy albums.)
  3. Now, depending on how you’re feeling, Day Two might be the time to start some real medicine. If your head feels really heavy, you can feel the fever and don’t have a thermometer, take a Tylenol/Advil/similar flu medication capsule in the morning, with a light breakfast – toast and tea is fine (you’re not likely to cook pancakes when you feel crappy anyway). ‘Feed a cold, starve a fever’ isn’t just a cliche – it’s true. Make more tea.
  4. Rest. This is actually the most difficult part of getting through the flu: you’re incapacitated, but you’re not strong enough to move around either. Be that as it may, plump up the pillows, grab a comforter, and lie down. Keep tissues at hand. If your nose is anything like mine, it’s the biggest offender in all this, so treat it with care – yes, it’s bothering the hell out of you, but every half-hour or so, rub a little lotion on the poor guy. It’s chapped from all the tissue-strangling, and the Rudolph-look is totally not in this fall. (Personally, I rub a finger over my Burt’s Bees lip balm tube and apply that to my nose – the burning sensation is very soothing, and has the same effect on the nose as it does on the lips.)
  5. Drink lukewarm water constantly. Dehydration is now at work, and you need to flush the flu out of your system. Keep drinking warm fluids, and keep making that tea.

Day Two, Evening

Assess how you feel. If the fever is still present, call a roommate/friend to bring home a thermometer – you need to know how high it is, because if it’s persistent you’ll need to go to the student health center. If you feel less feverish but just as congested, it’s time to use that most beloved of cold medicines: Nyquil. Now, Nyquil works as well as it does because it’s 15% alcohol by volume. If you’re on anti-depressants and/or anxiety medication, check with your psychiatrist about taking it. If he/she okays it, take a tablespoon – no more. You’ll be out like a light and Nyquil will do its job; there’s no need to get greedy just because your cold medicine is slightly boozy.

Day Two, Night

Go to bed early. This will also be difficult, as you’ve likely spent the day in bed. But make it more comfortable: rub Vicks Vapo-Rub on your chest if you’re particularly congested (I rub it on my nose and it really, really helps). Plump up the pillows again, and maybe even grab a stuffed animal.  The fever will make you alternately sweaty and freezing, but resist the urge to throw off the covers; keeping body temperature stable, even if you’re sweating buckets, is crucial.

Day Three, Morning

If you took the Nyquil, your head will be much, much clearer. If, for whatever reason, you didn’t, make more tea and start the Tylenol/Advil regimen again: one with a more powerful breakfast. Boil an egg, butter the toast, and maybe some snack on peanut butter-slathered apples around midday. Continue the podcast marathon, or change it up – listen to music, take a nap. Do what might be most comforting.

Day Three, Evening

Between five and seven PM, pay homage to that most trusted of cold remedies: chicken noodle soup. No one’s expecting you to boil stock and noodles, shred cooked chicken and pick herbs from the non-existent dorm garden, so canned is fine. But top the bowl with freshly ground black pepper – your taste buds need to be resurrected.

Day Three, Evening

Again, gauge where you are. Slather on the Vicks Vapo-Rub if it helped you the night before; take a teaspoon of Nyquil. Go to bed early (ideally, the same time as the night before).

Day Four, Morning

If you feel no differently than the previous night, take another Tylenol/Advil, eat breakfast and drink tea, and get thee to a doctor, because at this point, it might be more serious than just the flu. So before your body succumbs to bronchitis, strep throat, or, heaven forbid, pneumonia, head to the campus health center. They’ll likely prescribe a similar course of action – cold medicine, rest, soup – but it’s best to be inspected if the illness has lasted over 48 hours.

In my case, I was feeling better by midday on Day Three, and I was lucky. Hopefully these strategies help you stave off the flu for as long as possible; if not, well, keep on truckin’. And it might be a good idea to keep up some of these habits: tea, washing hands, rest. We get so caught up in assignments and deadlines and work that we neglect ourselves. And if you’re not kinder to your immune system in your twenties, it’ll be harder to be a healthier senior citizen. And you don’t want to blow your non-existent Social Security check on Advil.

Any other tips on what to do when you get the flu?

Featured photo credit: bookgrl via photopin cc