Learn About Drugs that Treat Flu

January 20, 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 two FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC this season. (You may have seen ads on TV for them.) The drugs  are Tamiflu® (generic name oseltamivir) and Relenza® (generic name zanamivir). 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.)

 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.

 What are antiviral drugs?

Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder) 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 (including but not limited to heart, lung or kidney disease, compromised immune system, metabolic disorder, asthma, blood disorders, young children, the elderly or pregnant women) and you get flu symptoms which 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.

Can children and pregnant women take antiviral drugs?

Yes. Children and pregnant women can take antiviral drugs. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is approved for the treatment of influenza in persons aged 2 weeks and older. Oseltamivir is also approved for the prevention of influenza in persons aged one year and older. Zanamivir (Relenza®) is approved 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.

 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. Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) who do not have internet access and would like written information can call 203 248-4528 or request by email, dculligan@qvhd.org