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Influenza (flu) usually goes away on its own after a week or two. In some cases, antiviral drugs can be used to shorten the time you feel ill with influenza. These drugs actually attack the virus, preventing it from growing.
The best "cure" for influenza, however, is prevention. Getting yearly vaccinations before flu season starts, washing your hands regularly, and staying away from large crowds when influenza is widespread are all ways you can avoid getting influenza.
Although there is currently no medical treatment that will cure the flu, there are four medications that may shorten the course of the virus and decrease the severity of the symptoms if you begin taking them within the first 2 days of the onset of the symptoms. All of these medications reduce the ability of the influenza virus to reproduce by attacking enzymes necessary for viral replication.
Two older drugs are well known -- amantadine (Symmetrel®) and rimantadine (Flumadine®). Both are mildly effective in retarding epidemic Type A influenza virus. Tablets taken twice daily for 5 days may reduce the symptoms and the course of the flu by somewhere between 1 and 2 days. Both drugs are readily available, covered by all forms of insurance and available for use in children.
Two new drugs became available in 1999 -- oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®). Tamiflu is a tablet, also taken twice daily for 5 days, while Relenza is a powder inhaled twice daily for 5 days. Both drugs block viral replication at a different metabolic site than used by the older medications. As a result, they work not only against epidemic Type A influenza, but also for more sporadic Type B influenza viral infections. Again, both drugs may reduce symptoms and retard the course of the influenza virus.
No scientific evidence is currently available to show whether the new drugs are actually better than the old drugs. Furthermore, because the duration of the virus may be only 1 day, it is unclear that the cost of even the older, less expensive, medications is justified. For these reasons, many insurance companies, especially HMOs, are refusing to pay for the newer medications until the further scientific studies required are completed.
Unfortunately, there is no pill or liquid you can take to cure the flu. Antibiotics, such as Penicillin, would not work because they only kill bacteria. The flu is caused by a virus.
A few approved antiviral drugs, however – including Flumadine, Relenza, Symmetrel and Tamiflu – have been shown to shorten the flu's duration.
Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) and Relenza (zanamivir) are neuraminidase inhibitors. They block the action of a protein called neuraminidase. That protein sits on the surface of a cell and can help the influenza virus enter and leave the cell. The virus can be trapped after entering the cell with the help of neuraminidase inhibitors.
When the virus is stopped from spreading to other cells, Tamiflu and Relenza can shorten the duration of the flu infection and lessen its intensity.
Flumadine and Symmetrel also can shorten the duration of the flu and lessen its severity, but those only work against influenza A. These two antiviral medications work by stopping the virus from replicating. The four drugs are available through prescription only and do have potential side effects. They should be taken only under a doctor's advice.
The best advice for treating the flu? Plenty of rest and plenty of liquids. Some symptoms can be alleviated, at least temporarily, by over-the-counter cold and flu remedies. Aspirin may relieve aches and fever, but it should not be given to children and adolescents. They are at risk of Reye's Syndrome, a rare but potentially dangerous illness.
Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.