Have you ever asked your doctor for antibiotics to treat a bad cold, only to be told that you’d just have to wait it out? That’s because antibiotics only treat bacterial infections – diseases like strep throat caused by bacteria. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses like the ones that cause colds and flu.
Antiviral medications do fight some types of viruses, and four are approved for viruses that cause seasonal flu (influenza). These medications can help treat symptoms and, in some cases, prevent people from getting the flu.
Antivirals At Work
Viruses can’t reproduce on their own. Instead, they have to take over your cells – a process that can happen very quickly, leading to a big virus party in your body. Antiviral medications keep party guests to a minimum – preventing the virus from replicating, so it will die out quickly – or stop the party from getting started altogether.
Feeling Better – A Day or Two Early
When you have seasonal flu, antiviral medications can cut the number of days you are sick (usually by 1 or 2 days), but you must start taking the appropriate medication within 2 days of getting sick. Contact your doctor as soon as symptoms appear. Antivirals may not protect you from flu-related complications like pneumonia.
Staying Healthy in Close Quarters
Antivirals can help stop the spread of flu among high-risk populations, like people who live and work in nursing homes, hospitals and even dormitories. Being in such close quarters makes it easy for a flu virus to spread rapidly throughout the whole group. When one person gets sick, a doctor may recommend that all other residents and staff take an antiviral until flu symptoms are gone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antiviral drugs are not substitutes for seasonal flu vaccination. However, antivirals are another tool that doctors can use to prevent and control seasonal flu. CDC says that antiviral medications may be appropriate for people
- At high risk for flu complications (such as seniors or people with chronic medical conditions) who cannot be vaccinated or are vaccinated after flu season has started
- Who care for persons at high risk for flu complications
- With immune deficiencies
What’s On the Market
Tamiflu® (oseltamivir), Relenza® (zanamivir), Symmetrel® (amantadine) and Flumadine® (rimantadine) are all antiviral medications approved for treating and preventing seasonal flu. But before you stock up, take note:
- Relenza is not recommended for patients with asthma or other chronic breathing conditions because some patients develop bronchospasm (wheezing) after inhaling this drug. Otherwise it’s approved for preventing flu in people 5 years and older and treating uncomplicated flu in people 7 years and older.
- Tamiflu has a new warning that patients, particularly children, need to be closely monitored for “abnormal behavior,” including hallucinations, delirium and other psychiatric effects, after taking the drug. Tamiflu is approved for preventing and treating uncomplicated flu in people 1 year of age and older.
- Seasonal flu viruses have developed resistance to some antiviral medications. Amantadine and rimantadine are not being used for seasonal flu this year (the second year in a row) because some influenza type A viruses are resistant to these antivirals.
Get the Facts
Talk with your doctor to see if you or a family member should receive an antiviral medication if you get sick with seasonal flu. Discuss symptoms that call for flu testing and ask about adjustments to your asthma or allergy treatment plans. The flu vaccine is still your first line of defense against seasonal flu. It’s not too late to get a flu shot if your family hasn’t been vaccinated yet!
First published: The MA Report, January 2007
Updated: February 2009