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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Flu Medication: What Works?

What flu medications do you need to help you through?
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Antiviral Flu Medications on the Market continued...

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.

The problem here? By the time most healthy adults realize they’re sick and get to a doctor to get a prescription, more than 48 hours have passed since the flu symptoms began. “If more than 48 hours have gone by when the patient shows up at the doctor’s office or the emergency room, flu medications’ effectiveness diminishes so much that most doctors won’t initiate treatment, unless the patient has such a high risk of complications that you want to try anything,” says Schaffner.

For that reason, only a small number of people who get the flu are actually treated with antiviral flu medications. Children get antiviral flu medication more than adults, says Schaffner, because parents tend to be more alert to a child’s signs of illness than adults are to their own.

Getting Double Protection From the Flu

In some cases, Schaffner says, doctors working with people who are at particularly high risk for complications from the flu, such as the elderly, people with heart or lung disease, or those with compromised immune systems, will write a prescription for antiviral medication before the person gets sick, just in case. This isn’t a strategy to be used with a robust, healthy 45-year-old, but for someone frail and particularly vulnerable.

“Two lines of protection are better than one. So I’ll make sure they’re vaccinated, but I’ll also give them an advance prescription for an antiviral,” he says. “If someone in their family or someone they see a lot becomes ill, or if they see lots of headlines that the flu is rampant in their community, they should fill the prescription and call me. That’s the way to get out ahead of the 48-hour rule.” 

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