Treatment for influenza centers on relieving major symptoms until they taper off. Because the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics are useless in fighting the virus itself. However, if secondary bacterial infections are present, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat them.
In general, influenza just needs to run its course. The best advice for those sick with the flu is to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. You might not have much of an appetite, but it's also 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 reliever/fever reducers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) may help bring a fever down. Have a bowl of hot chicken soup to relieve nasal congestion. Gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat. Avoid alcohol, and do not smoke.
Over-the-counter medications won't shorten the duration of the flu, but they can help relieve some of its symptoms. Most drugs that treat flu symptoms fall into one of three categories: pain relievers (analgesics), cough suppressants (antitussives), or decongestants. Learn more about drugs to treat flu symptoms.
Antiviral drugs prevent a flu virus from growing and replicating, thereby mitigating symptoms and making the virus less contagious. They work best if taken immediately after symptoms are noticed—if taken soon after contracting the virus, antiviral medications can even shorten the duration of the flu by one or two days.
During a flu outbreak, doctors may administer an antiviral along with the flu vaccine to high-risk individuals in order to bolster the patients' defenses against infection.
The antiviral medications most commonly prescribed are:
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
- Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
Both antiviral drugs can cause unwanted side effects, such as lightheadedness, nausea, and trouble breathing. Learn more about antiviral medications.
While not exactly a treatment, you can usually avoid getting the flu entirely by getting a yearly flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that proper vaccination could prevent 70 to 90 percent of all illnesses caused by the flu. The best time to get vaccinated is in October or November, in order to give your body time to develop antibodies to the flu virus in time for peak flu season, which is between December and March. However, the flu vaccine is not for everyone. Consult your doctor in deciding whether you and/or members of your family should be vaccinated. Learn more about the flu vaccine.