If you get sick

Page last updated: 19 January 2011

At this stage it is expected that the symptoms of pandemic influenza would be like seasonal influenza; however, they cannot be confirmed until a new strain emerges. It is important that you keep up-to-date with advice on symptoms from health department announcements, websites and hotlines.

If you are concerned about your symptoms, or they become worse, you should seek medical advice immediately. It is especially important to get medical advice at the first signs of illness in children, and in people who have certain chronic medical conditions. Your doctor will be able to advise if you have a chronic condition which may put you at particular risk of the complications of influenza.

It is difficult to predict who would be severely affected in the event of a flu pandemic, as it would be caused by a new strain of the virus.

If you get sick:

  • Stay at home - You should avoid contact with others as much as possible and stay away from work or school while the infection is contagious. If possible you should wear a mask when near other people. Advice will be provided on when normal activities can be resumed.
  • Rest - You will probably feel very weak and tired until your temperature returns to normal. Resting will provide comfort and allow your body to use its energy to fight the infection.
  • Drink plenty of fluids - Extra fluids are needed to replace those lost through sweating due to fever. If your urine is dark, you need to drink more. Try to drink a glass of water or juice or an equal amount of some other fluid every hour while you are awake.
  • Take simple analgesics (for pain relief) such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (in doses as recommended on the package) to ease your muscle pain and bring down fever (unless your doctor says otherwise). Children under 18 years of age should not take medications containing aspirin. The combination of influenza and aspirin in children has been known to cause Reye's syndrome, a very serious condition affecting the nervous system and liver. Your pharmacist can provide advice on appropriate 'over-the-counter' medications for reducing fever.
  • Antiviral medications - Information about the availability of medications for influenza will be communicated widely by the Australian Government in the event of a pandemic. When available, they are most effective if taken within the first 24-48 hours of infection. It is therefore important to seek medical attention early. Seek medical attention immediately by phone if you get sick.
  • Antibiotics are not effective against influenza because it is a virus - and antibiotics fight bacteria. However, your doctor may prescribe them if you develop secondary bacterial infections (such as an ear infection) or complications (e.g. pneumonia).
  • Gargle with a glass of warm water to ease a sore throat. Sugarless lollies or lozenges may also help. Some medications, such as benzocaine, work by numbing the throat. They usually come in the form of a lozenge or throat spray. Others, containing substances like honey or herbs, work by coating the throat.
  • Use saline nose drops or spray to help soothe or clear a stuffed nose. Decongestants help shrink swollen blood vessels in the nose. There are two kinds - pills and nose drops or sprays. Nose drops and sprays act in minutes. They are more effective and have fewer side effects than pills. However, they tend to only work for two to three days. If your nose is still stuffy after three days, you may want to switch to pills. The pills take half an hour to work. They may cause a dry mouth, sleep disturbances and other side effects. Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant in pill form, but you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether it is suitable for you to take this medication.
  • A cough can be helpful if it gets rid of mucus. If a dry cough is keeping you awake, a cough suppressant (antitussive) may be helpful. If you need help loosening mucus from the chest or lungs, an expectorant may be helpful. You should not take a suppressant and an expectorant together. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about suitable medication.
  • Do not smoke as it is very irritating to airways that are already damaged by the virus.
  • Ask for help - If you live alone, are a single parent, or are responsible for the care of someone who is frail or disabled, you may need to call someone to help you until you are feeling better.
  • Older people are much more sensitive to medications in general and may experience more side effects, especially to the nervous system (e.g. confusion). If you have questions about medications, don't hesitate to talk to your pharmacist.
  • Talk to a doctor - If you are sick during a pandemic it is advisable that in the first instance you make contact with a doctor or hospital by phone rather than in person, to help reduce the spread of infection.
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When to seek medical advice?

If you or someone you are caring for has flu-like symptoms and experiences any of the following symptoms, you should immediately seek medical advice.
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Unable to keep liquids down because of vomiting
  • Dehydration (very thirsty, dizzy when standing, or passing much less urine than normal)
  • Rapid deterioration

If a child is sick:

  • Children under 18 years of age should not take medications containing aspirin. The combination of influenza and aspirin in children has been known to cause Reye's syndrome, a very serious condition affecting the nervous system and liver. It is important for parents of children who need to take regularly medications containing aspirin for a health problem to discuss the possible complications associated with influenza with their doctor, and find out what they can do to reduce the risk. Your pharmacist can provide advice on appropriate 'over-the-counter' medications for reducing fever.
  • Dress them in lightweight clothing and keep the room temperature at about 20 Celsius if possible.
  • Offer cool fluids frequently when the child is awake.
  • Allow children to rest and stay at home until no longer infectious, so the virus isn't spread to other children.
  • Use salt-water nose drops to treat a stuffy nose. Throw tissues in a bin as soon as you have wiped your child's nose.
  • Teach children to cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze.
    Wash your hands often and teach your children to do the same.
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People considered at risk of developing complications.

Most healthy people recover from influenza without serious problems. However, some people are considered at risk of developing complications which can be very serious, and even cause death. These include:
  • very young children
  • the elderly
  • pregnant women, particularly those in the second and third trimester
  • people with diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS
  • people who have received organ transplants
  • people who take certain medications frequently
  • people with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease (e.g. asthma, cystic fibrosis), kidney disease and diabetes.
The risk to these people increases because they may have weaker body defences (immune systems) or because when the body is affected by other conditions, it is easier for bacteria to invade the cells that have been damaged by the flu virus and cause other illnesses such as pneumonia. The flu can also stress the body so much that an underlying illness may worsen.