Congratulations: You’ve got the flu! That might sound like a minor inconvenience, but influenza is no joke. Despite the medical community’s best preventive efforts (including the flu vaccine, which most of us should be getting annually), millions of Americans are sickened, hundreds of thousands of us are hospitalized, and tens of thousands of us die from flu every year. Unfortunately, since influenza is a virus, there’s no cure for it; antibiotics are useless against it and for the most part, you just need to wait it out. But there is a way to soften the blow. “Flu is one of the few viral respiratory illnesses that we can actually treat specifically,” says Susan J. Rehm, MD, vice chair of the department of infectious disease and executive director of physician health at Cleveland Clinic.
“Antiviral medications are specific to the influenza virus and they actually inhibit the virus from reproducing, and in that way can help people have a milder case of flu and get better faster,” says Dr. Rehm. “They are the only things that are proven to make a difference in terms of the severity or duration of illness.” Oseltamivir, a generic form of the oral antiviral drug Tamiflu, received FDA approval at the end of last summer, and both it and an inhaled antiviral, zanamivir (aka Relenza) are available by prescription this season.
The key to antiviral prescription meds’ effectiveness is the rapidity with which they’re administered; they work best when they’re administered within the first 48 hours of illness. “What it will probably do is shave off at least a day from the illness,” Dr. Rehm says. “That illness that might normally last five to seven days hopefully would last a day or two less.”
Who should get it
Anti-viral treatment can literally be a lifesaver for folks at higher risk of complications from the flu, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical issues (such as diabetes, cancer, or heart or lung disease). For those at lower risk, it may not be necessary. “Most healthy people who develop influenza infection do just fine by getting plenty of fluids and rest and do not need an antiviral medication unless they have a severe infection,” says Pritish Tosh, MD, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
That said, antivirals may still be helpful. “I have no reservations about prescribing it to low-risk patients,” says Scott Bernstein, MD, an internal medicine physician at Bon Secours Medical Group in Rockland County, New York. “There is a rapid flu test that gives the results in 10 minutes, so a physician can easily wait for the test to return before prescribing the drug,”
Know the signs
In order to make sure you get treated in time, it pays to familiarize yourself with flu’s specific symptoms so that you know when it’s time to contact your doctor. For that, Dr. Rehm offers a mnemonic: FACTS (Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness, and Sudden onset). “The typical flu in most patients causes fever and achiness for two to four days, but they are often left with a dry cough and tiredness that can last a while,” says Dr. Bernstein, who recommends drinking plenty of fluids and taking fever-reducing medication.
Dr. Rehm emphasizes that getting help is easier than ever: “There are so many ways to access care these days, whether it’s a phone call to the doctor’s office, a virtual physician visit or virtual health care provider visit, or a trip to urgent care.” She notes that it’s also important to stay home from work or school and generally avoid going out in public while you recover. “That’s both for yourself and the other people around you. The reality is that you really do need to stop and allow yourself to get better, because if you keep going with the flu, that probably increases your risk for complications, as well as exposes everybody around you to the virus.” Long story short: Reach out for treatment as quickly as you can, then be prepared to stay put until you’ve recovered.