You Have the Flu — Now What?

Flu treatment options explained

(RxWiki News) Flu season is here, and that means you or a loved one might have been diagnosed with the flu.

Can the Flu Be Treated?

Yes—the flu can be treated with antiviral medications.

Antivirals are medications that fight the flu in your body. These medications are not sold over the counter. They require a prescription from your doctor.

Antivirals are different from antibiotics because antibiotics are used to fight bacterial infections — not viral infections.

These medications can make your illness less severe and reduce the number of days you are sick. They also can prevent serious flu complications.

Available Treatments

There are four antiviral drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  1. Oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu) is a medication used to treat the flu. This medication comes in capsule and suspension (liquid) forms and is usually taken twice a day.
  2. Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza), available in pill form, is given as a single dose by mouth.
  3. Zanamivir (Relenza) is a powder that is inhaled. Zanamivir is not recommended for people with breathing problems like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  4. Peramivir (Rapivab) is administered into the vein as a one time dose by a health care provider.

Only take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them.

If you are exposed to the flu, antiviral medications can help prevent you from becoming sick. Talk to your health care provider if you have been or may be near a person with the flu.

Who Should Receive Antivirals?

Those who are very sick with the flu (those in the hospital, for example), as well as those with the flu who have a greater chance of getting serious flu-related complications because of their age or because they are at high risk for flu-related complications, are good candidates for antivirals. And they should start treatment as soon as possible.

According to the CDC, research shows that antiviral drugs used to treat the flu work best when they are started within two days of getting sick.

However, starting antivirals later can still be helpful, according to the CDC. This is especially true if the person with the flu is very sick or is at high risk for complications related to the flu. 

Who Is at Risk of Serious Complications from the Flu?

The following groups may face a high risk of serious flu complications:

  • People with asthma
  • Those with blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
  • Those with chronic lung disease (such as COPD or cystic fibrosis)
  • People with endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus)
  • People who are obese (with a body mass index of 40 or higher)
  • Those with heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease)
  • People with kidney and liver disorders
  • Those with metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
  • Those with neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
  • People younger than 19 and on long-term aspirin or salicylate-containing medications
  • People with a weakened immune system due to disease (such as people with HIV, AIDS or some cancers like leukemia) or medications (such as those receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer or those with chronic conditions requiring corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune system)

Other people at high risk include those 65 years old and older, children younger than 2, women who are pregnant and women up to two weeks after the end of pregnancy. Native Americans and Alaska Natives and those who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities may also face a higher risk.

Your doctor will determine whether you need antivirals. However, most healthy people who get the flu do not necessarily need to be treated with antiviral drugs.

To stop the spread of flu germs and to protect yourself and loved ones:

  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick.
  • Try to limit touching your eyes, nose and mouth. This is because the flu is spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk.
  • Frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu. This is because the flu is contagious for a relatively long period of time. 
  • Limit contact with others to prevent infecting them. A good rule of thumb is to stay home for at least 24 hours after you no longer have a fever (without the use of fever-reducing medicine).
  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw the tissue away. If a tissue is nowhere to be found while your nose tickles, sneeze into your upper sleeve. Coughing or sneezing into your hands can still spread germs, especially if you touch common surfaces or objects afterward. Afterward, wash your hands with soap and water. Coughing into a tissue is very important because flu germs can be transmitted from up to six feet away.
  • If you're extremely cautious, wear a face mask to help you avoid spreading your sickness.

Talk to your local pharmacist if you have any questions about the flu.

Written by Anyssa Garza, PharmD, BCMAS