Though there are no drugs that can “cure” the flu, or even shorten its staying time, there are many over-the-counter medications that can help relieve flu symptoms. These include pain relievers, cough suppressants, decongestants, and anti-histamines. There are also some prescription drugs that can alleviate flu symptoms and make the virus less contagious.
Over the Counter Medications
Over-the-counter pain relievers can alleviate the headache and back and muscle aches that often accompany the flu. Included in this category are:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naxopren (Aleve)
Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 18 if they are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, as it could cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious and sometimes fatal disease.
Cough suppressants work to inhibit the cough reflex, making them useful in controlling dry, unproductive coughs. An example of this drug category is:
- Dextromethorphan (Robitussin)
Decongestants can be effective in relieving the stuffy nose that often accompanies the flu. Some decongestants found in over-the-counter flu medications include:
- Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Contac, Actifed)
- Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE, DayQuil)
Patients with hypertension should avoid decongestants if possible as they have been shown to increased blood pressure.
Itchy eyes and runny noses are not common flu symptoms, but if present, antihistamines can help minimize your discomfort. First generation antihistamines also have sedative effects and are often included in nighttime medications to help you sleep.
Common first generation antihistamines include:
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- chlorpheniramine (Aller-Chlor)
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Sominex)
- doxylamine (Vicks NyQuil)
If the sedative effects of first-generation antihistamines are not desired, so second-generation antihistamines, which have fewer or no such effects, can be used. Two second-generation antihistamines are available at local pharmacies:
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- loratadine (Alavert, Claritin)
Many brand name medications combine two or more categories of drugs to treat a variety of symptoms at the same time. Some common combination medications are:
- Acetaminophen-Dextromethorphan (to treat fever, aches, and cough)
- Acetaminophen-Pseudoephedrine (to treat fever and congestion))
- Acetaminophen-Chlorpheniramine-Dextromethorphan (Theraflu Nighttime Severe Cold Caplets) (to treat fever, congestion, and cough)
- Acetaminophen-Chlorpheniramine-Dextromethorphan-Pseudoephedrine (to treat fever, congestion, and cough) (Comtrex Cold and Flu Maximum Strength Liquid )
- Acetaminophen-Dextromethorphan-Doxylamine (Tylenol Cough & Sore Throat Nighttime) (fever, cough, congestion)
- Acetaminophen-Dextromethorphan-Guaifenesin-PE (fever, cough, mucus, congestion) (Tylenol Cold Head Congestion Severe)
- Acetaminophen-Dextromethorphan-Phenylephrine (fever, cough, congestion) (Comtrex Cold & Cough)
- Acetaminophen-Dextromethorphan-Pseudoephedrine (fever, cough, congestion) (Comtrex Non-Drowsy)
- Acetaminophen-Guaifenesin-Phenylephrine (fever, cough, congestion) (Tylenol Sinus Congestion & Pain Severe, Theraflu Warming Relief Cold and Chest Congestion)
- Ibuprofen-Pseudoephedrine (fever, congestion_ (Advil Cold and Sinus)
Antiviral drugs can help, mitigate flu symptoms, and make the virus less contagious. These drugs work by preventing the virus from growing and replicating. For maximum effectiveness, an antiviral drug typically should be administered within the first 48 hours after infection. If taken right away, antiviral medications can shorten the duration of the flu by one or two days.
During an outbreak of the flu, a physician will often give an antiviral along with the flu vaccine to high-risk individuals in order to bolster the patients’ defenses against infection. People who are unable to be vaccinated, such as infants younger than 6 months and people who are allergic to the vaccine, can maximize their body’s defenses by taking an antiviral.
Two antiviral medications once commonly prescribed – amantadine (Symmetrel, Symadine) and rimantadine (Flumadine) – have lost their effectiveness in recent years. The antiviral medications now most commonly prescribed are:
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
- Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
Whereas zanamivir is used mainly to treat a flu infection and its symptoms, oseltamivir can treat the flu. Zanamivir is administered via an inhaler and oseltamivir is taken orally in a pill form. Both medications can cause unwanted side effects such as lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and trouble breathing. The Food and Drug Administration also warns that oseltamivir can put people (especially children) at risk for confusion and self-injury. Always discuss potential side effects of any prescription medication with your doctor.