Medications That Treat Flu

November 17, 2015

The best “medicine” for flu is prevention! You have heard this before. The most important current flu prevention tool we currently have is a flu shot. Granted, it is not always the perfect match to the flu viruses that circulate in any given year, but it’s the best we have, and generally will reduce the severity of flu, should you still contract it. Another very important prevention tool is hand washing. Scrub away those germs every chance you get!

 However, if, despite your best attempts to prevent the flu fail, there are prescription medications that may be used to treat influenza. They are called “antiviral drugs.” There are three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC this season to treat influenza. The brand names for these are Tamiflu® (generic name oseltamivir), Relenza® (generic name zanamivir), and Rapivab® (generic name peramivir). Tamiflu® is available as a pill or liquid and Relenza® is a powder that is inhaled. (Relenza® is not for people with breathing problems like asthma or COPD, for example.) Rapivab® is administered intravenously by a health care provider.

 The Centers for Disease Control website has a section titled “What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs.”  Questions and answers from this page are presented below.

  Can the flu be treated?

Yes. There are prescription medications called “antiviral drugs” that can be used to treat influenza illness.

 What are antiviral drugs?

Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid, an inhaled powder, or an intravenous solution) that fight against the flu in your body. Antiviral drugs are not sold over-the-counter. You can only get them if you have a prescription from your doctor or health care provider. Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics, which fight against bacterial infections.

 What should I do if I think I have the flu?

If you get the flu, antiviral drugs are a treatment option. Check with your doctor promptly if you have a high risk condition and you get flu symptoms (see box below for the full list of high risk conditions). Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to treat your flu illness.

 Should I still get a flu vaccine?

Yes. Antiviral drugs are a second line of defense to treat the flu if you get sick. A flu vaccine is still the first and best way to prevent influenza.

 What are the benefits of antiviral drugs?

When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia. For people with a high risk medical condition, treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having milder illness instead of very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.

 What are the possible side effects of antiviral drugs?

Some side effects have been associated with the use of flu antiviral drugs, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, runny or stuffy nose, cough, diarrhea, headache and some behavioral side effects. These are uncommon. Your doctor can give you more information about these drugs or you can check the CDC or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites.

 When should antiviral drugs be taken for treatment?

Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within 2 days of getting sick. However, starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high risk health condition or is very sick from the flu. Follow instructions for taking these drugs.

 How long should antiviral drugs be taken?

To treat the flu, Tamiflu® and Relenza® are usually prescribed for 5 days, although people hospitalized with the flu may need the medicine for longer than 5 days. Rapivab® is administered intravenously for 15 to 30 minutes.

 Can children take antiviral drugs?

Yes. Children can take two of the approved antiviral drugs—oseltamivir and zanamivir. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is recommended by the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for the treatment of influenza in persons aged 2 weeks and older, and for the prevention of influenza in persons aged 3 months and older. Zanamivir (Relenza®) is recommended for the treatment of influenza in persons aged 7 years and older, and for the prevention of influenza in persons aged 5 years and older. Peramivir (Rapivab®) is recommended for use only in adults aged 18 and older.

 Can pregnant women take antiviral drugs?

Yes. Oral oseltamivir is preferred for treatment of pregnant women because it has the most studies available to suggest that it is safe and beneficial.

 Who should take antiviral drugs?

It’s very important that antiviral drugs are used early to treat hospitalized patients, people with severe flu illness, and people who are at higher risk for flu complications based on their age or underlying medical conditions. Other people also may be treated with antiviral drugs by their doctor this season. Most otherwise-healthy people who get the flu, however, do not need to be treated with antiviral drugs.

For more information on antiviral medications, visit www.cdc.gov, keyword antiviral medication.

 This column is provided by Quinnipiack Valley Health District, the local public health department serving the towns of Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge. The information provided is intended to give you current health information to assist you in making informed decisions.  It is not to be construed as medical or legal advice or a substitute for recommendations made by your health care provider. District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) who do not have internet access and would like written information on this topic can call 203 248-4528.