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Published on January 09, 2014

Facts About Flu Drugs

January 9, 2014

Various medicinesEvery year, millions of people in the United States get the flu. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets seasonal flu each year; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from its complications; and about 36,000 people die.

There are three types of flu viruses – type A, B, and C. Types A and B flu are responsible for the widespread outbreaks that occur almost every winter. Type C usually causes a mild respiratory illness (or may not produce symptoms at all) and does not cause flu epidemics.

Uncomplicated flu gets better with or without treatment, but can cause considerable discomfort during the course of the illness. Many people use over-the-counter medications to ease flu symptoms. Because flu is a viral infection, it can be treated with an antiviral medication. Antibiotics are not an effective treatment for the flu. Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria and are not effective against viral infections.

Treating Flu

There are four antiviral prescription drugs on the market that treat flu. These medications attack the virus that causes the flu, thus shortening the time it takes for symptoms to improve in uncomplicated cases of types A and B flu.

All four of the antiviral medications are different in terms of who can take them, how they are given, and side effects. A doctor decides whether an antiviral drug is needed and which one to use.

“It is important to understand that these drugs are not a cure for the flu,” says family practice physician, Maureen Dela Cruz, MD. “They don’t make people instantly better, but they may save flu sufferers a day or two of aching and sniffling.”

Flu drugs are meant to be taken within the first two days of experiencing flu symptoms. “That means if you arrive at the doctor’s office after experiencing symptoms for three or more days, it is too late to receive a flu drug,” stresses Dr. Dela Cruz. “There is no information about how effective these drugs are if treatment is started more than two days after flu symptoms start.”

“It is also important to note that these antiviral medications are only effective against flu viruses,” Dr. Dela Cruz says. “They will not help symptoms associated with the common cold or the many other flu-like illnesses caused by viruses that circulate in the winter.”

Preventing Flu

In the event of a flu outbreak in a home, institution, or community, antiviral medications may be prescribed as a preventive measure, especially for individuals who are at high risk for complications from flu. Also, anyone who is in close contact with someone who is considered at high risk for complications may be given an antiviral medication to reduce the chance of passing the flu to the high-risk person.

“Antiviral drugs are NOT meant to take the place of a flu shot,” says Dr. Dela Cruz. “A flu shot is the best way to prevent and control the flu.”

Flu drugs do not eliminate the risk of flu complications, such as bacterial infections, viral pneumonia, and heart or other organ system problems. Anyone taking a flu drug that does not get better, or experiences new symptoms, should talk with a doctor. A bacterial infection or other illness that looks like the flu may be present.

Sources: Centers For Disease Control, Centers for Disease Control, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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