The normal treatment for flu is rest, plenty of liquids, and acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or acetylsalicylic acid (ASA)* to help with headache, muscle aches, and fever. Children and teenagers with flu shouldn't take ASA or other salicylates (medications related to ASA, such as salsalate or magnesium salicylate). The combination of influenza and ASA is linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious condition affecting the brain and liver. Very few over-the-counter cold medications contain ASA or other salicylates. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about this.
Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections like flu and the cold, but they are prescribed for complications such as bacterial infections.
Amantadine is used for fighting flu in high-risk patients. It can shorten the disease if taken within 24 to 48 hours of symptoms appearing. It can also protect you from type A flu if you're likely to be exposed to the virus in the next few days. It carries some risk of side effects including insomnia and confusion. Amantadine does not work against type B viruses, and type A viruses can easily develop resistance.
Zanamivir and oseltamivir are medications that prevent newly formed viruses from escaping the infected cells that produced them. This limits further spread of the virus in the body. Zanamivir is an inhaled spray and oseltamivir is available as capsules or oral solution. Taken within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of illness, these medications reduce the duration of symptoms by an average of 1 to 3 days.
Only flu antibodies can prevent flu. The only ways for our immune systems to generate antibodies are for us either to be infected or to get vaccinated. Vaccination needs to be repeated every year.
Each spring, a worldwide network of physicians and testing labs decide which flu strains are likely to cause trouble and design that year's vaccine accordingly. The vaccine gives resistance to the type B strain and the 2 type A strains that are expected to predominate in the coming flu season.
The vaccine is usually over 80% effective in preventing the seasonal flu in healthy adults. It's given to anyone classified as high-risk, health workers, and anyone who wants to avoid the flu.
High risk groups for seasonal flu include:
- anyone aged 65 years or older
- people with chronic heart, lung, or metabolic disorders (including diabetes)
- those with chronic kidney disease, anemia, a weakened immune system, or asthma
- residents of nursing homes
- children receiving long-term ASA therapy who may be at risk of developing Reye's syndrome
- children 6 months or older with respiratory disorders
- children between the ages of 6 and 23 months
- people who are morbidly obese (BMI of 40 or greater)
- Aboriginal peoples
Sometimes, as in the 1997 to 1998 flu season, a new mutation appears after the year's vaccine has been prepared and it's too late to change it. Fortunately, so far the new strains haven't been different enough to completely bypass the resistance offered by the vaccine. Don't forget to wash your hands properly and frequently, eat well, and get plenty of sleep to help prevent the flu.
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team
Updated, October 31, 2011
*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®. The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.