Treating the flu mainly means relieving major symptoms until your body clears the infection.
Antibiotics aren’t effective against the flu because it’s caused by a virus, not bacteria. But your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infection that may be present. They’ll 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 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 options include the following:
- Have a bowl of hot soup to relieve nasal congestion.
- Gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Stop smoking.
OTC medications won’t shorten the length of the flu, but they can help reduce symptoms.
OTC pain relievers can lessen the headache and back and muscle pain that often accompanies the flu. In addition to the fever reducers acetaminophen and ibuprofen, other effective pain relievers are naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin (Bayer).
However, aspirin should never be given to children or teenagers for treating flu-like symptoms. It could lead to Reye’s syndrome, which results in brain and liver damage. This is a rare but serious and sometimes fatal disease.
Cough suppressants reduce the cough reflex. They’re useful in controlling dry coughs without mucus. An example of this type of drug is dextromethorphan (Robitussin).
People with high blood pressure are generally told to avoid this type of medication, since it may increase blood pressure.
Itchy or watery eyes aren’t common flu symptoms. But 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)
To avoid drowsiness, you may want to try second-generation medications, such as:
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
- loratadine (Claritin, Alavert)
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 replication and shedding, these medications slow the spread of infection in cells within the body. This helps your immune system deal with the virus more effectively. They allow for a faster recovery and may lessen the time when you’re contagious.
Common antiviral prescriptions include neuraminidase inhibitors:
- zanamivir (Relenza)
- oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
- peramivir (Rapivab)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also approved a new medication called baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza) in October 2018. It can treat people 12 years or older who have had flu symptoms for less than 48 hours. It works differently than the neuraminidase inhibitors.
For maximum effectiveness, antiviral drugs must be taken 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), neuraminidase inhibitors have a 70 to 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 shouldn’t 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
The antiviral medications most commonly prescribed are:
- zanamivir (Relenza)
- oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
Zanamivir is approved by FDA to treat the flu in people who are at least 7 years old. It’s approved to prevent the flu in people who are at least 5 years old. It comes in a powder and is administered via an inhaler.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you shouldn’t take zanamivir if you have any type of chronic respiratory problem, such as asthma or any chronic lung disease. It could cause airway constriction and difficulty breathing.
Oseltamivir is FDA-approved to treat the flu in people of any age and to prevent the flu in people who are at least 3 months 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:
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 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 anywhere between November 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.
What flu treatments are most effective for children?
Per the CDC, yearly vaccination is the best way to protect children from the flu. Vaccination in pregnant women even protects the baby for several months after birth. However, if infection still occurs, antiviral medication therapy may help reduce symptoms. This type of medication requires a prescription from a doctor. Additionally, practicing good hygiene, avoiding those who are sick, and getting plenty of fluid and rest while recovering will help the immune system beat the virus. For treatment of fever or pain associated with the flu, acetaminophen can be taken after 3 months of age, or ibuprofen can be taken after 6 months of age.Healthline Medical TeamAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.