Relieving Symptoms of the Flu

The flu usually resolves within 2 weeks without medical treatment. Because it is caused by a virus, influenza does not respond to antibiotics. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. Patients who have the flu should be sure to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration). Alcohol and smoking should be avoided.

Medications, such as acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), can be used to relieve headaches and muscle aches and to reduce fever. Aspirin should not be used in children younger than 18 years of age due to an increased risk for Reye's syndrome. Reye's syndrome is a serious complication that can develop following a viral infection.

Cough medicine usually is not necessary to treat coughs associated with the flu. If coughing interferes with the patient's ability to rest, cough medicine (often containing codeine, which suppresses coughs) may be prescribed.

Antiviral Medications

If taken within two days of the onset of the flu, antiviral drugs may reduce the length and severity of the illness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), zanamavir (Relenza), oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and (as of December 2014) peramivir (Rapivab) for treatment of influenza. Amantadine and rimantadine are no longer recommended by the CDC because influenza strains are now resistant to these medications.

Antivirals are not approved to prevent flu in children younger than one year old; however, the FDA expanded the approved use of oseltamivir to treat children as young as 2 weeks old who have shown symptoms of flu for no longer than two days, in December 2012. The FDA cautions that doctors, pharmacists and parents must work together to make sure the correct dosage of Tamiflu is measured and administered to infants for whom this medication is prescribed. In infants, the most common side effects of oseltamivir are vomiting and diarrhea.

Oseltamivir is a prescription medication that may be taken orally for 3–5 consecutive days. Zanamivir is an inhaled medication and peramivir is the first drug in its class approved for IV (intravenous) administration. Antivirals are effective against influenza viruses, but they are not effective against the common cold or other influenza-like illnesses.

Side effects of antiviral medications include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nervousness

Serious skin reactions (e.g., Stevens-Johnson syndrome, erythema multiforme) also have been reported (rare).

Treating Flu Complications

Antibiotics are not used to treat the flu. These drugs often are used to treat complications such as pneumonia and ear infection (otitis media). In severe cases, patients may be hospitalized to receive intravenous antibiotics and breathing assistance.

Flu Treatment Research

In February 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored three clinical trials to test flu treatments in people with confirmed influenza. According to the NIH, despite the development of a successful flu vaccine, more effective ways to treat influenza are necessary to help prevent the thousands of deaths from the flu that occur each year in the United States. This research is ongoing.

The first study examined whether oseltamivir reduces the length of time a person infected with influenza is contagious—that is, produces and sheds the virus in the upper respiratory tract. In the second study, treatment with oseltamivir alone was compared to treatment with oseltamivir in combination with two additional antiviral drugs in people with at least one risk factor for influenza complications (e.g., asthma, heart disease, obesity, age over 65, etc.). The third study, involving children and adults, including women who are pregnant, hospitalized with severe influenza. In this study, half of the participants received standard flu treatment and half received standard treatment as well as 2 infusions with plasma enriched with flu antibodies.

After the Flu

Following recovery from the flu, patients should to return to normal activity levels slowly. This is especially important after severe illness or flu complications.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Aug 2007

Last Modified: 22 Sep 2015