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What Are Flu Medicines And How Do They Work?

Understanding Flu Treatment Methods

Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology Profile Photo

Written by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology on December 16, 2021

Millions of people get sick with the flu virus each year. Unlike the common cold, which is unpleasant but usually resolves quickly, the flu can be downright debilitating, keeping you from your normal routine at work or school.

In the quest to treat this highly contagious virus, several different types of flu medicine have been developed. Today, you have a number of different options available to treat your flu symptoms.

How Do I Know If I Have the Flu?

The flu season in the northern hemisphere runs from approximately October to April or May, and during this time, people are more likely to get sick with the flu than during other times of year.

However, the flu has a number of symptoms in common with other illnesses, including the common cold and COVID-19, so it can be difficult to know whether you have a flu or another illness.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Runny nose or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Everyone experiences the flu differently, so a person may have some or all of the above symptoms. If you become sick with a number of the above symptoms and your symptoms come on suddenly, particularly during the colder months of the year, it’s possible that you could have the flu. If you suspect you may have the flu, speak to your healthcare provider about getting a flu test. They can test you for the flu and determine what types of treatment may be appropriate, including flu medicine.


What Are the Different Types of Flu Medicine?

While coming down with the flu can be very unpleasant, the good news is that there are many different types of flu medicine you can use to help ease your symptoms. Each of the remedies is designed to address different symptoms and works differently to treat the flu.


Antiviral Drugs

One of the most well-known ways to treat the flu is with antiviral drugs. This type of flu medicine, which requires a doctor’s prescription, can be used to help shorten the amount of time you’re sick with the flu. They are available in many forms, including liquids, pills, inhaled powders, and intravenous solutions, and your healthcare provider can help you choose the right option for you.

It’s important to note that antiviral drugs cannot cure the flu or other viral infections. Instead, they can support your body in the fight against the virus. Antiviral drugs are most effective when taken within two days of the onset of flu symptoms. Peramivir and baloxavir are common antivirals.


Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopathic remedies are natural treatments that are derived from an alternative medicine practice known as homeopathy. Homeopathy, which is based on the principle that “like cures like,” uses natural ingredients in tiny amounts to address symptoms from many different medical conditions, including the flu.

Homeopathic remedies can be useful in supporting overall health and addressing symptoms such as fever, body aches, headache, cough, and runny or stuffy nose.


Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen is a common OTC medication that is used as a pain reliever and fever reducer. When taken to treat flu symptoms, acetaminophen can help to address body aches and headache as well as to lower a fever. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are common active ingredients found in many over-the-counter medications, including cold and flu formulas. Acetaminophen is generally considered safe when used as directed, and it is usually safe when used in children and pregnant women.


Cough Medicine

One of the most troublesome symptoms of the flu is a cough, which can keep you up at night and prevent you from getting the rest that you need to fight the virus and feel better. Cough medicine, which includes cough suppressants like dextromethorphan or cough expectorants like guaifenesin, quiet the impulse to cough and loosen mucus, helping you to get a good night’s sleep.


What Are the Benefits of Each Type of Flu Medicine?

Each type of flu medicine works differently and has different benefits. However, all can be helpful in managing flu symptoms and may serve to make you more comfortable while you are sick.


Antiviral Drugs

Antiviral drugs are helpful for reducing symptoms associated with the flu, including fever. They are most effective when taken within two days of becoming flu symptoms. Antiviral drugs may also help reduce the amount of time you spend sick with the flu by approximately 24 hours.

Antiviral drugs can also help reduce the risk of experiencing flu complications like ear infections, pneumonia, and sinus infections. People who are considered to be at a high risk of experiencing flu complications, including very young children, those with underlying medical conditions, and elderly people, can take antiviral treatments early on in their illness and experience a more mild form of the flu.

With antiviral medication, at-risk individuals are less likely to require hospitalization from complications.


Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopathic remedies may have advantages over traditional medications. They may be helpful in supporting overall health and addressing symptoms of the flu naturally while your immune system fights the virus. Homeopathic remedies may also generally be safely used in young children and pregnant women when taken appropriately, and they do not require a prescription.


Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen is a common pain reliever and fever reducer that can easily be purchased over the counter at any pharmacy. It is commonly included as an active ingredient in cold and flu medications, which may combine acetaminophen with other active ingredients that treat different symptoms, such as nasal congestion or cough.

Acetaminophen is safe for sensitive groups when used as directed, including young children and pregnant women. It can be helpful in treating flu symptoms like body aches, headache, and fever.


Cough Medicine

Cough medicine may be purchased over the counter or with a prescription depending on the active ingredient. Cough medicine, including active ingredients like dextromethorphan, work to suppress a cough, helping you to sleep more easily.

Cough medicines often cause drowsiness as a side effect, which can be helpful when trying to rest from the flu. However, cough medicines are not safe for use in children under four, and may interact with other medications and potentially cause unpleasant side effects in some people.


When Should You Start Taking Flu Medicine?

Antiviral flu medicine is most effective when treatment is initiated within two days of flu symptoms appearing. While acetaminophen and cough medicine can be taken at any time during your illness, taking these medications when symptoms begin may help your body get more rest and fight the virus more quickly. Antiviral drugs may still be helpful in reducing your risk of experiencing flu complications even if started later, but they are most effective when started right away.


How Long Do You Take Flu Medicine?

The length of time that you will take flu medicine depends on which medicine you take. Antiviral drugs vary depending on the medication. For example, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) are typically taken for a period of five days when taken at home. Rapivab (peramivir) or Xofluza (baloxavir) are given in a single dose and only taken once. Patients who are hospitalized with the flu may be given oseltamivir in the hospital, where treatment may last more than five days.


Who Should Take Flu Medicine?

Virtually anyone who has the flu can benefit from taking some kind of flu medicine, whether they choose acetaminophen, cough medicine, or a homeopathic remedy.

However, antiviral drugs are particularly helpful and important for certain groups of people, particularly those who are considered to be at increased risk of experiencing complications of the flu. These groups include children under the age of five, pregnant women, elderly adults, immunocompromised individuals, and people with underlying medical conditions, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and more.

Taking antiviral medications can help reduce the risk of experiencing complications of the flu and lower the risk of being hospitalized if you do get sick.


Summary

There are four primary types of flu medicine used to treat symptoms of influenza, including antiviral drugs, homeopathic remedies, acetaminophen, and cough medicine. Each offers its own unique benefits and can help address symptoms of the flu.

Antiviral drugs are particularly helpful for people who are considered to be at increased risk of experiencing a severe form of the flu or complications from the flu, while virtually anyone may benefit from using homeopathic remedies designed to address flu symptoms. Antiviral drugs are available by prescription only, so speak to your healthcare provider if you suspect that you may have the flu.



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