Flu deaths and hospitalizations are surging in one of the most severe flu seasons in recent memory. The outbreak is far from over and 63 children have died, health officials say.
But if you or a family member gets the flu, there’s no reason to panic. Most adults and children can weather the attack without ending up seriously ill or in a hospital. And there are things you can do to lessen the misery. Experts say antivirals such as Tamiflu can make you feel better a lot sooner. Here’s what you need to know about flu treatment:
Is there a drug that can cure the flu?
No drug will instantly transform a feverish, hacking, achy mess into a work-ready picture of health. But there are antiviral medications that can help, especially if you start them in the first day or two of symptoms. In studies, the medications cut a day or so off the typical five- to six-day illness.
They also can lessen complications such as pneumonia, said Arnold Monto, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan and a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America.
The most-used drug is Tamiflu, known by the generic name oseltamivir. It comes in pill and liquid form. Other flu antivirals are given as intravenous or inhaled treatments. All work by stopping flu viruses from multiplying in your body.
People who are especially sick or at high risk — including infants, pregnant women, people with heart disease and everyone over 65 — are strongly urged to seek antiviral treatment, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
How do I get an antiviral drug?
You need a prescription. Best idea: If you have a regular doctor, call the office and describe your symptoms. If you have a fever and cough, aches and pains and other flu symptoms, “many doctors will prescribe over the phone” in an active flu season such as this one, Monto said.
If you or your child sounds especially sick, the doctor may still ask you to come in, said Flor Munoz, an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Heads-up: Some spot shortages have been reported, so once you have a prescription, you may still need to call more than one pharmacy to find a supply.
What are the side effects?
Some people will have nausea and vomiting or more rarely, diarrhea, Munoz said. Much more rarely, some children develop hallucinations, restlessness, nightmares and other psychological or behavioral changes. But it’s not clear the symptoms are caused by the drug, rather than by the flu itself, she said.
Should I ask for an antibiotic?
No. Antibiotics fight bacteria, and the flu is caused by a virus. So an antibiotic will not help you and can actually make you sicker with diarrhea and other side effects, Monto said.
The picture changes if you develop a bacterial complication, such as pneumonia or an ear infection. You might need an antibiotic if you are still getting sicker after several days, you redevelop a fever or are having trouble breathing. In any case, such symptoms require quick medical attention, Munoz said.
What about non-prescription drugs?
It’s fine to use acetaminophen to lower fevers and relieve aches and pains, even in infants, Munoz said. Older children and adults can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Adults also can use over-the-counter cough medicines if they help, but they should stay away from multisymptom formulas full of antihistamines, decongestants and other ingredients they probably do not need (even if the product has “flu” in the name), Monto said.
The pediatrics academy says children under age 4 should never take over-the-counter cough medicines because they do not work and can have serious side effects. And the academy warns that multisymptom formulations often contain acetaminophen. That could lead to overdoses in children if parents are already giving them a fever reducer.
Is there a supplement that helps?
There’s no vitamin, herbal potion or other supplement known to prevent or treat the flu, Monto and Munoz said.
How about home remedies?
The best are rest and fluids, the experts agree. If a child is becoming dehydrated, you might want to get a pediatric rehydrating solution from the drugstore, Munoz said. Otherwise, take your pick: Water is great, but so is chicken soup, tea or whatever works for you, Monto said.
I don’t have the flu yet. Should I still get a vaccine?
Yes. Even though the shot will not prevent all flu cases, it might lessen your symptoms if you do get sick.