Antiviral drugs for the flu | Infectious diseases | Health & Medicine | Khan Academy
Taking Antiviral Drugs as Flu Treatment
There's no medication to cure the flu, or any other viral infection. But antiviral drugs can shorten the duration and stop the virus from replicating — helping you to get well sooner.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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When you've got the flu, all you want is to feel better. And when all the hot chicken soup and fluffy pillows in the world aren't enough to help you feel human again, you might have another option — antiviral drugs.
Antiviral drugs are those used to help shorten the duration of flu symptoms — but they're not a flu treatment that will cure you. They won't make you immediately feel back to normal, and they aren't necessary to help you get over the flu. Whether you take antivirals or not, you’ll eventually get over the flu.
How Antiviral Drugs Work
"Antiviral medicines work by biochemically making it impossible for the virus to replicate," explains Randy Wexler, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus.
Preventing replication prevents the spawn of new viruses, which in turn keeps them from invading and infecting other cells throughout the body. What that means is that you start to feel better more quickly because the virus doesn't overwhelm your body, and your symptoms overall may not be as severe. Typically, you will get better only a couple of days earlier than you might have.
Some antivirals can even be taken preventively, to help reduce your risk of getting the flu if you've been in close personal contact with someone who has it.
Types of Antivirals
In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two antivirals (which currently do not have generic equivalents) to treat the flu:
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
- Oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu)
There are two older antivirals (which are also available as generics) also approved by the FDA:
- Amantadine hydrochloride (Symmetrel)
- Rimantadine/rimantadine hydrochloride (Flumadine)
But these older antiviral drugs only work on one main type of flu virus, and even then, many of the strains that circulate today are resistant to these drugs, which means these drugs are not effective against them.
It's clear that antiviral drugs aren't miracle medications, but they can be helpful when you need to drag yourself out of bed and function throughout your day. But there's definitely a catch — you've got to be diagnosed with the flu quickly after symptoms start and begin treatment right away in order to get the benefit of antivirals.
"These medications need to be taken within 48 hours of onset of symptoms or they do not work," says Dr. Wexler. "These medications are typically not indicated for those under age 1, but can be used if done so cautiously."
Tamiflu comes in capsules and in liquid (oral suspension) form. Always follow the directions on the label as to how much to take and how often. Ask your doctor if you have any questions. If you are prescribed the liquid form, store it in the refrigerator and shake it before each use. Also, be sure to carefully measure out the prescribed amount using a syringe marked with the same unit of measure as the medicine label (milliliters, mL, or milligrams, mg). Take the medication only for the amount of time indicated by your doctor. Throw away any leftover medicine after that time.
Pros and Cons of Antiviral Drugs
As with any medication, there are pros and cons to taking an antiviral drug. In addition to helping you get over the flu faster, antivirals can offer some protection from the risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications for people who are at a high risk, such as those with other serious medical conditions. As for the cons, there are some side effects to consider, says Wexler. Though antivirals "are relatively safe," he says, "as with any medication they do have side effects."
Though not typically serious, the side effects can be pretty uncomfortable, and can include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. More serious side effects including confusion, behavioral changes, and seizures have rarely been reported in children. Allergic skin reactions can also occur.
So before you and your doctor decide if an antiviral regimen is a good option to help you get through the flu, it's important to weigh the pros and cons — the benefits of feeling better faster versus the possible side effects on top of your illness.
Video: The Flu and You | Does antiviral medication work against the current strain of the flu?
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