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.
People who are at high risk for flu complications should seek immediate medical attention. High-risk groups include:
- adults ages 65 years and older
- women who are pregnant or up to 2 weeks postpartum
- people who have weakened immune systems
In most cases, however, 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.
If possible, stay home from work or school. 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 consumption.
- Stop smoking, if you smoke.
OTC medications won’t shorten the length of the flu, but they can help reduce symptoms.
OTC pain relievers can reduce 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).
Decongestants can relieve a runny, stuffy nose caused by the flu. Some decongestants found in OTC flu medications include pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed) and phenylephrine (in DayQuil).
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 reduce 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)
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
During a flu outbreak, a doctor will often give individuals who have a higher chance of contracting the virus 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. People who cannot be vaccinated 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 individuals at higher risk who need this medication to prevent serious flu-related illness.
The antiviral medications most commonly prescribed are:
- zanamivir (Relenza)
- oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
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.
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
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 anywhere between
The flu vaccine is not for everyone. Consult your doctor when deciding whether or not members of your family should receive this vaccination.
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