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Medications such as Tamiflu can’t prevent the flu, but they can help ease its symptoms. Getty Images
  • The flu vaccine can help prevent the flu, but if you do get sick, there are four FDA-approved medications for treating flu symptoms.
  • These meds need to be taken within 24 to 48 hours of onset of symptoms to be effective.
  • Typically, the medications lessen severity of symptoms by preventing the flu virus from multiplying.
  • The 2019-20 dominant flu strains have peaked at unusual times and are also affecting children and young adults more than usual.

The 2019-20 flu season has already thrown us a few curveballs — and it’s still far from over.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who come down with the flu this year, it’s possible to lessen the severity of the illness.

But you’ll have to act quickly.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved four drugs, all antivirals, for treating flu symptoms.

They’re oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu), baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza), peramivir (Rapivab), and zanamivir (Relenza).

“The flu this year is susceptible to all four of them, so the antivirals will work,” explained Dr. James D. Cherry, distinguished research professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital Division of Infectious Diseases.

“The thing is, they have to be given right away, and definitely within the first 48 hours,” Cherry told Healthline.

These drugs are hardly a cure for the flu, and they’re only effective when taken shortly after the onset of flu symptoms. But they’re the best option available when it comes to lessening flu symptoms.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the department of health policy and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, told Healthline that antiviral medications have the added benefit of lowering the risk of contagion.

“They generally shorten the duration of the illness by a day, give or take, and very importantly, they make it less likely that you will transmit the flu to others because they’re killing the virus. They’re not letting it multiply,” he said.

“You’re also less likely to get those serious complications of pneumonia and having to be hospitalized. In other words, it really tilts the whole thing in your favor,” Schaffner said.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the flu season tends to peak between December and February.

But because every flu season is different, and contains a few surprises, it’s hard to predict when flu cases will peak or plateau.

“You don’t know from year to year how early the peak will be — and we haven’t seen the peak yet this year — and how long it will last,” said Dr. Len Horovitz, an internist and pulmonary specialist in private practice in New York as well as on staff at Lenox Hill Hospital.

“In 2009, the H1 strain came out in April and May. Some predictions you just can’t make,” he said.

Already, the 2019-20 flu season has been a bit strange.

It started earlier than expected, and the dominant flu strains have virtually swapped places.

In a given flu season, there are strains classified as A viruses and B viruses. Both are present from the beginning of flu season, but A strains typically cause more diagnoses earlier in the season, while B strains come in later.

This year, things are different.

“There isn’t a single influenza virologist out there who can understand this,” Schaffner said.

With the B strain making an impact earlier than expected, doctors are now seeing an uptick in people with the A strain.

“One last feature, with both the B and the A strains: They both have a predilection for children and young adults, which is also a little unusual, because flu traditionally adversely affects older people and people with underlying illnesses,” Schaffner said. “So, there are a number of things about this influenza season so far that are distinctive, if not quirky.”

To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has distributed 173 million doses of flu vaccine this season.

While this represents more than half of the U.S. population, it still leaves tens of millions of people at risk.

Horovitz has some sobering statistics for anyone who’s skeptical of getting their shots.

“In an average year of the flu, between 30,000 and 40,000 people die in this country of the flu,” he told Healthline.

“They’re not necessarily the young and vulnerable. It can be anybody. Even if they’re only 40 to 60 percent effective in preventing the flu, that’s better than zero. The vaccine will probably reduce your chances of hospitalization should you get the flu or complications of the flu,” Horovitz said.

It’s best to get the flu vaccine early in the season, but it’s never too late. That said, if you haven’t gotten your flu shot, it’s best at this point not to delay things further.

“If you’re inclined to get the vaccine, run, do not walk,” Schaffner said. “Because, after all, it takes 10 days or so for your protection to build up in your body. So, at this point, if you really want to get protected, get on with it.”

“I know it’s late, but make a somewhat delayed New Year’s resolution,” Schaffner added. “When this fall rolls around, be first in line to get the vaccine. Don’t be a vaccine procrastinator.”