What medications are available to treat the flu?

Two types of medication are used to treat the flu: symptom control medications and antiviral medications.

Symptom control medications do not treat the cause of the flu (the flu virus). They simply help to manage the symptoms. The choice of medication depends on your symptoms:

  • for fever and muscle aches: acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • for sore throat: throat lozenges or sprays containing ingredients such as dyclonine, benzocaine, or hexylresorcinol
  • for nasal congestion: oral (by mouth) decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, or nasal spray decongestants such as oxymetazoline or xylometazoline (do not use nasal sprays longer than  3 to 5 days, as longer use can make congestion worse)
  • for cough: cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan. Do not give cough medication to children under 6 years old.

Most symptom control medications are available without a doctor's prescription. Consult a health professional (such as a pharmacist) before using these medications.

Antiviral medications work by blocking the spread of the flu virus through the body. A common class of antivirals, called neuraminidase inhibitors, does this by blocking an enzyme necessary for the flu virus to spread through your body, and other types of antivirals block the virus from reproducing. Stopping the spread of virus helps make the flu less severe.

What are the benefits of antiviral medications?

Antiviral medications, if started within 48 hours after the symptoms begin, can help relieve flu symptoms and make the flu less severe. Some antiviral medications can shorten the duration of flu symptoms by about 1 to 2 days, depending on the medication used.

Antiviral medications can also help reduce the risk of flu complications. An analysis of 11 clinical studies in over 5000 people found that certain antiviral medications (neuraminidase inhibitors, see above) can decrease the risk of flu complications by about 25% for otherwise healthy people. And for people at risk of flu complications, these medications can reduce the risk by about 60%.

If you are at risk of flu complications and think you might have the flu, see your doctor as soon as possible. If your doctor prescribes an antiviral medication, the medication should be started within 48 hours after your symptoms begin.

Antiviral medications can also be used to reduce the risk of getting the flu for people who have had close contact with someone who has the flu (such as family members).

What are the risks of antiviral medications?

Like any medication, antiviral medications may have side effects. These differ between medications, but the most common side effects are:

  • nausea or vomiting (taking the medication with food can help manage this side effect)
  • abdominal pain
  • headache

Some antiviral medications may cause other side effects, such as dizziness, diarrhea, nose irritation, bronchitis, coughing, and infections of the ear, sinuses, nose, or throat.

Serious side effects are very rare. They may include allergic reactions, breathing problems, skin rashes, or liver problems (symptoms include dark urine or yellowing of the skin or eyes). People with the flu are also at risk of seizures, confusion, hallucinations, agitation, anxiety, or abnormal behavior. These symptoms may happen after antiviral treatment is started, but they may also happen even when the flu is not treated.

If you notice any of these serious side effects, or have any other concerns about side effects, talk to your doctor.

How do I get the most out of my antiviral treatment?

  1. Fill your prescription and start taking the medication as soon as possible. Antiviral medications should be started within 48 hours after your symptoms begin.
  2. Keep taking the medication for as long as your doctor recommends, even if you start feeling better before the medication is finished.

Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about the medication or if you notice any side effects. You can use the doctor discussion guide to help you prepare for your visit.