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Flu Medication: What Works?

What flu medications do you need to help you through?
WebMD Feature

It’s that time of year again. Time for school bells, falling leaves, icy snow -- and the flu. With fall and winter comes flu season, so it’s time to think about how to protect yourself and your family. What flu medications do you need to stave off the fever and body aches? What can help you manage the symptoms?

The most important tool to protect yourself from the flu, in fact, is not antiviral flu medications -- although these can be very important -- but an annual flu vaccine. Unlike in past years, when shortages limited the vaccines to those at greatest risk, 2007 promises to be a banner year for the influenza vaccine.

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“We are going to have an abundance of flu vaccine available this season, so everyone can and should get one,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease expert who chairs the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.

“Not just children, not just the elderly, everyone,” says Schaffner. “You should make your appointment to get the vaccine now, but if you don’t get vaccinated before Thanksgiving, there’s still time to do it. For the most part, flu peaks in February, so even if you’ve carved the turkey already, it’s not too late.”

But some people don’t get vaccinated, and some flu strains duck around the vaccine’s protection. What flu medicines are available to augment the vaccine or treat you if you’re one of the unlucky ones to get sick anyway?

Antiviral Flu Medications on the Market

A total of four antiviral medications have been approved to both prevent and treat the flu in the U.S. Two of them -- the oldest and, unfortunately, the least expensive -- are no longer prescribed because common flu strains have largely become resistant to them. That leaves the two newest, sold under the brand names Tamiflu and Relenza.

These drugs must be prescribed by a physician, and can be given to most people 1 year old or older who want to prevent or treat the flu. If you’re not ill but have been exposed to someone who does have the flu, Tamiflu and Relenza have been shown to be 70% to 90% effective in preventing flu this way (although they’re still not a substitute for the vaccine).

These flu medicines can also be used to treat the flu, but the window in which they’re effective is very small. If you begin taking the drugs within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, they’ve been shown to reduce flu symptoms. They also help lessen the total time you’re sick by one to two days, and they may make you less contagious to others.

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