Treating the flu mainly means relieving major symptoms until your body clears your infection. Antibiotics are not effective against the flu because it is caused by a virus, not bacteria. However, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infection that may be present. They will likely recommend some combination of self-care and medication to treat your symptoms.
In most cases, the flu just needs to run its course. The best treatments for people sick with the flu are lots of rest and 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. You may also use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
Other self-care treatments include:
- having a bowl of hot soup to relieve nasal congestion
- gargling with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat
- avoiding alcohol
- giving up smoking
OTC medications won’t shorten the duration of the flu, but they can help reduce symptoms.
OTC pain relievers can lessen the headache and back and muscle pain that often accompany the flu. In addition to the fever reducers acetaminophen and ibuprofen, other effective pain relievers are naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin (Bayer).
Aspirin should never be given to children younger than 18 years for flu-like symptoms. It could cause Reye’s syndrome, which results in brain and liver damage. This is a rare but serious and sometimes fatal disease.
Cough suppressants inhibit the cough reflex. They are useful in controlling dry coughs without mucus. An example of this type of drug is dextromethorphan (Robitussin).
People with hypertension should avoid this type of medication. It may increase blood pressure.
Itchy eyes and a runny nose are not common flu symptoms. However, if you do have them, antihistamines can help. First-generation antihistamines have sedative effects that may also help you sleep. Examples include:
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- doxylamine (NyQuil)
Many OTC cold and flu medications combine two or more classes of drugs. This helps them 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 antiviral drugs can help lessen flu symptoms and prevent related complications. These drugs prevent the virus from growing and replicating. By reducing viral shedding, these medications slow the spread of infection within the body. This allows your immune system to deal with the virus more effectively. They allow for a faster recovery and may lessen the time during which you can spread the virus to others.
For maximum effectiveness, you should receive an antiviral drug within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. If taken right away, antiviral medications can also help shorten the duration of the flu.
Antiviral medications are also used in flu prevention. According to the CDC, they have a 70–90 percent success rate in preventing the flu. During a flu outbreak, a doctor will often give high-risk individuals an antiviral along with the flu vaccine. This combination helps bolster their defenses against infection. People who can’t be vaccinated can help their body’s defenses by taking an antiviral drug. These individuals include infants younger than 6 months and people who are allergic to the vaccine.
However, the CDC advises that these medications should not replace your annual flu vaccine. They also warn that overusing these types of medications can increase the risk of strains of the virus becoming resistant to antiviral therapy. Overuse can also limit availability for high-risk individuals who need this medication to prevent serious flu-related illness.
Commonly prescribed antiviral medications
Zanamivir is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat flu in people who are at least 7 years old. It’s approved to prevent flu in people who are at least 5 years old. Zanamivir is a powder, administered via an inhaler. 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.
Oseltamivir is FDA-approved to treat the flu in people who are at least 14 days old and to prevent the flu in individuals who are at least one year old. Oseltamivir is taken orally in the form of a capsule. The FDA also warns that Tamiflu can put people, especially children and teenagers, at risk for confusion and self-injury.
Both medications can cause unwanted side effects, including:
- trouble breathing
Always discuss potential medication side effects with your doctor.
While not exactly a treatment, a yearly flu shot is highly effective in helping people 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. In the United States, peak flu season is between December and February.
The flu vaccine is not for everyone. Consult your doctor when deciding whether or not members of your family should receive this vaccination.