There are specific antiviral drugs that fight against the flu in your body and come in three forms: pills, liquid or a powder that you inhale. You must have a prescription for antiviral drugs as they are not available over-the-counter. Antivirals are different from antibiotics because they fight viruses, not bacteria. Unlike antibiotics, antiviral drugs do not destroy their target; instead, they prevent it from developing so, for example, they prevent the flu virus from multiplying and spreading throughout your body.
Taking antiviral medications can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by a day or two. While that may not seem like much, anyone who has ever had the “real” flu will tell you they would have loved a couple of days off from feeling so miserable. Perhaps, more importantly, antiviral flu medications can also prevent serious flu complications, which create much more serious health issues, like pneumonia.
Some people are at high-risk for complications from the flu. For example, people 65 and older, American Indians and Alaska Natives, children under five (especially under two), and those with medical conditions such as asthma, sickle cell disease, and COPD have a high-risk of flu complications. Treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a relatively mild illness and a very serious one that could result in a hospital stay – or worse.
Studies show flu antiviral drugs work best when started within two days of getting sick, so the best course of action is to see your medical provider as soon as you suspect you are coming down with the flu. Most people can tell rather quickly that it isn’t just a cold, as they tend to feel extremely ill right away, and a high fever develops which is not typical of the common cold. If you miss that two-day window, it is still helpful to start taking antiviral flu medications later, especially for someone with an underlying health condition or is already extremely ill from the flu.
While uncommon, there are some known side effects associated with antiviral flu drugs, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, runny or stuffy nose, cough, diarrhea, headache, and some behavioral side effects. Typically, these medications are well-tolerated, but you should be aware of the side effects and contact your provider if you notice any while taking antiviral flu medication.
As of June 30, 2018, there are three prescription antiviral drugs recommended by the CDC. They are available as a pill, liquid, inhaled powder, or given intravenously (I.V.). The brand names for these are Tamiflu® (generic name oseltamivir) and Relenza® (generic name zanamivir), and Rapivab® (generic name peramivir). The most commonly prescribed are Tamiflu® which is available as a pill or liquid, Relenza® is an inhaled powder and not prescribed for people with breathing problems like asthma or COPD. There is also a drug called Rapivab® which must be administered intravenously by a health care provider.
Anyone, including children and pregnant women, can take antiviral drugs. Tamiflu® (Oseltamivir) is for the treatment of influenza for anyone of any age and approved for the prevention of influenza in those three months and older. Tamiflu® is also the medication recommended for pregnant women because it has had the most studies showing it is safe for pregnant women. Relenza® (Zanamivir) is for the treatment of influenza in people seven years and older, and for the prevention of influenza in those five years and older. If recommended, Rapivab® is used for early treatment of flu for those two years and older.
To treat the flu, Tamiflu® and Relenza® are usually prescribed for five days, although people hospitalized with the flu may need to take it longer.
With all of this antiviral medication on the market, are you still wondering whether or not you should bother getting a flu vaccine? YES! YOU SHOULD STILL GET A FLU SHOT! Antiviral drugs are not a substitute for a flu vaccine. While admittedly not 100% effective, a flu vaccine is the first and best way to prevent influenza, and it is certainly best not to have the flu at all. Antiviral drugs are the second line of defense to treat the flu if you do get sick.
If you’d like to learn more, please feel free to speak to your medical provider about these medications, and you can also visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites for more information.
The information presented here was reviewed by Margarita Silva-Barber, SEARHC Infection Prevention & Control Manager.
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