November 3, 2020

How Do Influenza Antivirals Help Ease Flu Symptoms?

Discover what these medications do + why they don't replace the flu shot

woman on the couch sick with flu

With the possibility of COVID-19 mixing with flu season this fall and winter, experts are concerned about the spread of both illnesses. Luckily, there are vaccines available for both the flu and COVID-19.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Additionally, while there will never be a replacement for getting your annual flu shot, there are a variety of antiviral medications that medical experts can use when someone has the flu or is suspected to have the flu.

These medications are called antiviral drugs and are only available from a doctor. Influenza antivirals are used to lessen flu symptoms and can shorten the amount of time someone is sick.

“All influenza antivirals work by reducing how much the flu virus reproduces in your body,” says infectious disease specialist Susan Rehm, MD.

But, just because influenza antiviral medications are available doesn’t mean you should rely on a pill to knock the flu out of your system, she cautions. Your annual flu shot is still your best defense against the flu.

Why is the flu such a big deal?

Influenza can be a deadly illness for anyone.

“People at the extremes of age and those with underlying conditions are at even higher risk of complications and death,” says Dr. Rehm. “62,000 Americans lost their lives during the 2019-2020 flu season, and over half a million people were hospitalized.”

Advertisement

The majority of those flu deaths involved people aged 65 and older or who were at high risk.

You’re considered high risk when you:

  • Are younger than 2 years of age or older than 65.
  • Have a chronic condition, such as heart, lung, kidney or neurologic disease or diabetes.
  • Are immunosuppressed.
  • Are a pregnant woman.
  • Have obesity.
  • Live in a chronic care facility, such as a nursing home.

If you’re at high risk of flu complications, it’s important that you call your healthcare provider at the first signs of illness.

How do you know you have the flu and not a cold?

It’s tough to tell the difference between symptoms of a cold and symptoms of the flu. The word F.A.C.T.S. — Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness, Sudden onset — can help you remember what symptoms are more common with the flu.

“The flu can make you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, with muscle aches and/or a headache,” Dr. Rehm explains. “Colds come on more gradually, and are more likely to cause a stuffy and runny nose.”

How can you tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19?

Symptoms of influenza and COVID-19 can be very similar. Your doctor may recommend that you be tested for both viruses, especially if you’re high risk for complications. Influenza antiviral medications are not active against COVID-19.

Advertisement

How many flu antivirals are available?

Many antivirals have been used to treat flu over the years, but doctors currently rely on four main ones. To treat influenza, doctors can prescribe:

  • Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza®)
  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®)
  • Peramivir (Rapivab®)
  • Zanamivir (Relenza®)

All of these antiviral medications work best when given soon after symptoms start. Contact your doctor if you think you might have influenza or COVID-19 and you are at high risk for complications.

How do influenza antivirals help with the flu?

They work best when taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. Antivirals may reduce your symptoms’ duration by about one day and reduce the amount of virus in your system. If your infection comes under control more quickly you may be less likely to develop complications and less likely to spread it to other people.

Antivirals are good precautions, but not a substitute for the flu shot

“It’s important for doctors to have a variety of medicines on reserve for people at high risk of complications, and for times when there is a vaccine mismatch or a new strain of influenza emerges,” says Dr. Rehm. “But I can’t emphasize enough that vaccination is the mainstay of prevention.”

Everyone 6 months of age and older should get the flu vaccine — every single year.

Related Articles

crowd of people at music concert
February 5, 2024
What Constitutes a ‘Superspreader Event’?

Any large social gathering — from a family birthday party to an indoor music concert — has the potential to spread serious infection

Teacup of tea and plate of toast
February 2, 2024
What To Eat, Drink and Avoid When You Have the Stomach Flu

Start slowly with clear fluids, and then move to bland, easy-to-digest foods

Male with eyes closed sitting hunched over, pinching area between their eyes
January 29, 2024
Headache and Fatigue: 11 Possible Causes That Can Trigger Both

Many factors, like dehydration, a cold or even your medication, can result in these common symptoms

Female wrapped in blanket laying on sofa looking fatigued or unwell
January 23, 2024
How To Manage COVID Fatigue and Regain Your Energy

It’s important to connect with a healthcare provider, get quality sleep and balance your activities with your energy levels

Sick person on couch using tissue on nose with medication bottles on coffee table
January 19, 2024
How To Know if It’s COVID-19, a Cold or Allergies

Symptoms can overlap and be hard to distinguish, but there are some telltale differences

Close-up of hands in lab gloves sorting vials and covid-19 blood sample
January 17, 2024
Everything You Need To Know About COVID-19 Variants

Just like the flu, COVID-19 will continue to evolve every year

Adult female on couch, coughing into crook of arm, holding thermometer
January 15, 2024
Prepping for Flurona: When COVID-19 and the Flu Strike at the Same Time

It’s best to treat flu-like symptoms as if you have COVID-19

positive COVID test with COVID virus molecules floating around it
December 20, 2023
How Long Does COVID-19 Last if You’re Vaccinated?

The duration varies, but symptoms can linger for a few days up to a couple weeks or more

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad