Treatments to End the Flu

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on October 20, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on October 20, 2014

Drugs and Treatments For the Flu

Treatment for influenza (the flu) centers on relieving major symptoms until they go away.  Antibiotics are useless in fighting the problem since the flu is caused by a virus. However, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infections that may be present. In addition, some combination of self-care and medication to treat your symptoms will be recommended.

Self-Care Treatments for Flu

In most cases, the flu just needs to run its course. The best advice for people sick with the flu is to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. You may not have much of an appetite, but it’s important to eat regular meals to keep up your strength. Stay home from work or school and don’t go back until your symptoms subside.

To bring down a fever, place a cool, damp washcloth on your forehead or take a cool bath. Over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) may also help to bring a fever down.

Have a bowl of hot soup to relieve nasal congestion. Gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat. Avoid alcohol and don’t smoke.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications won’t shorten the duration of the flu, but they can help to alleviate symptoms.

Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter pain relievers can alleviate the headache and back and muscle pain that often accompany the flu. Included in this category are:

  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • naproxen (Aleve)

Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 18 if they are exhibiting flu-like symptoms. It could cause Reye’s syndrome. This is a rare but serious disease and can sometimes be fatal.

Cough Suppressants

Cough suppressants work to inhibit the cough reflex. This makes them useful in controlling dry coughs where there is no mucus. An example of this drug category is dextromethorphan (Robitussin).

Decongestants

Decongestants can relieve the stuffy nose that often accompanies the flu. Some decongestants found in over-the-counter flu medications include pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed) and phenylephrine (in DayQuil).

Patients with hypertension should avoid this type of medication. It may increase blood pressure.

Antihistamines           

Itchy eyes and runny noses are not common flu symptoms. However, if they are present antihistamines can help to minimize their discomfort.

First-generation antihistamines have sedative effects that may help you to sleep as well. Examples include:  

  • brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
  • dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
  • diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • doxylamine (NyQuil)

To avoid these sedative effects, you may want to try second-generation medications. Two types are available at local pharmacies. These include cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin).

Combination Medications

Many OTC cold and flu medications combine two or more categories of drugs to treat a variety of symptoms at the same time. A walk down the cold and flu aisle at your local pharmacy will show you the variety.

Prescription Medications: Antiviral Drugs

Antiviral (prescription) drugs can help to lessen flu symptoms and prevent related complications. These drugs prevent the virus from growing and replicating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also suggests that these drugs may help to make the virus less contagious.

For maximum effectiveness, you should receive an antiviral drug within the first 48 hours after infection. According to the CDC, antiviral medications can also shorten the duration of the flu if taken right away.

During a flu outbreak, a doctor will often give an antiviral along with the flu vaccine to high-risk individuals. This combination will help to bolster the patients’ defenses against infection.

People who are unable to be vaccinated can maximize their body’s defenses by taking an antiviral. These individuals include infants under 6 months old and people who are allergic to the vaccine. 

Antiviral medications are also used in flu prevention. According to the CDC, they have a 70-90 percent success rate in preventing the flu.

However, the CDC advises that these medications not be taken in place of your annual flu vaccine. They also warn that overusing these types of medications can increase your body’s resistance to their effectiveness. It can also limit the amount available for those high-risk individuals who need this medication to prevent serious flu-related illness.

Commonly Prescribed Antiviral Medications

The antiviral medications most commonly prescribed are zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Zanamivir is FDA-approved to treat flu in people who are 7 or older and to prevent flu in people who are 5 or older. Oseltamivir is FDA-approved to treat and prevent the flu in individuals who are 1 and older.

Zanamivir is administered via an inhaler and oseltamivir is taken orally in a pill form.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should not take zanamivir if you have any type of chronic respiratory problem, such as asthma or lung disease.

The FDA also warns that Tamiflu can put people (especially children) at risk for confusion and self-injury.

Both medications can cause unwanted side effects, including:

  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • trouble breathing

Always discuss potential medication side effects with your doctor.

The Flu Vaccine

While not exactly a treatment, a yearly flu shot is highly effective in helping an individual avoid the flu. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a yearly flu shot.

The best time to be vaccinated is in October or November. This gives your body time to develop antibodies to the flu virus by peak flu season. Peak flu season is between December and March.

The flu vaccine is not for everyone. Consult your doctor when deciding whether or not members of your family should receive this vaccination.

Learn more about drugs to treat flu symptoms.

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