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Woman experiencing flu symptoms in need of strong medicine for flu

What is the strongest medicine for flu?

Written on December 22, 2022 by Amy Harris, MPH, RN. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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You want to treat the flu as fast as you can. Who can afford to miss a week of work or be taken down by influenza? What is the strongest medicine to take for the flu? The experts at Everlywell can help you make sense of your prescription and over-the-counter treatment options.

Antivirals — a powerful weapon for treating the flu

Influenza (flu for short) is a virus. Antiviral medications prevent viruses such as the influenza virus from growing and replicating. Therefore, antiviral drugs work best the earlier in a flu infection they are taken, usually one to two days after flu symptoms begin. When taken early in the infection, antiviral drugs can reduce the severity of the flu’s worst symptoms and shorten the illness's length by an average of one day [1].

Flu antiviral medications prevent complications for people at the highest risk of getting sickest with the flu — such as people with asthma, diabetes (including gestational diabetes), compromised immune systems, or heart disease [2].

Antiviral flu drugs can be taken as pills, liquid, inhaled powder, or intravenous solution. They are not sold over the counter, meaning a healthcare provider must write you a prescription.

The FDA has approved six antiviral medications for the treatment of influenza [2]. Healthcare providers prescribe Oseltamivir (tradename Tamiflu®) for early treatment of uncomplicated flu in people two weeks and older [1]. Two other antiviral medications are zanamivir (Relenza®) and peramivir (Rapivab®)[1]. These antiviral medications are different than those used to treat COVID-19.

Why don’t antibiotics treat the flu?

Influenza viruses, not bacteria, cause the flu. Antibiotics are medications used to treat infections caused by bacteria. So antibiotics will not kill the virus and are not an approved flu treatment [2].

Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial infections resulting from your initial influenza infection. For example, your plugged-up, stuffy nose could make it easier for bacteria to infect your sinuses and cause a sinus infection requiring antibiotics. Note that not all sinus infections (also called sinusitis) must be treated with antibiotics (3). Pneumonia (a bacterial infection of your lungs) is also a common complication of the flu requiring antibiotics for treatment, especially in people with asthma. Viruses can also cause pneumonia, so taking antibiotics won’t work to treat your pneumonia if it is viral [4].

Can over-the-counter medications treat the flu?

No. They can only treat the symptoms of the flu. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and treatments cannot cure the flu. They do help you feel better, however. Treating the flu for most otherwise-healthy people means rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medications to relieve your miserable flu symptoms [5]. With influenza viruses, you usually just have to wait until your body clears the infection to start feeling better.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help to lower your fever and reduce body aches in your neck and back. However, remember never to give aspirin to children or teenagers for flu symptoms. Doing so could lead to Reye’s syndrome, which results in brain and liver damage [6].

Cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan (Robitussin) help you stop that dry hacking cough that has kept you (and your partner) up all night. Other medications called expectorants, such as guaifenesin (Mucinex), work to loosen congestion in your chest and throat, making it easier to cough it out through your mouth.

Decongestants and antihistamines relieve the runny, stuffy nose caused by the flu. Some decongestants found in OTC flu medications include pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed) and phenylephrine (in DayQuil). If you have high blood pressure, you should check with your healthcare provider before taking these OTC meds because they can sometimes increase blood pressure [7].

Some antihistamines have the side effect of causing drowsiness, so they are added to night-time cold formulations such as NyQuil(Doxylamine) or Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Be extra careful to read the complete ingredient list of the many OTC multi-symptom cold and flu formulations (such as Dayquil and Nyquil). These medications contain multiple classes of drugs that may interact with other prescription medications or supplements you are taking. You can also discuss which OTC flu treatments are safe to take with a pharmacist or your healthcare provider.

Does the flu vaccine treat the flu?

No. The flu vaccine works to prevent you from getting sick with the influenza virus in the first place. So, it may just be the strongest medicine for the flu because it can help you avoid getting sick at all. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the best time of year to get your flu shot is in the early fall (September–October), and you should get a flu shot every year [8].

Staying healthy this flu season

Even if you get the flu vaccine, you can still catch the flu, although it may be less severe [9]. Antiviral drugs are one of the strongest treatment options if you get sick with the flu. Check with your healthcare provider right away if you are at higher risk of severe flu complications so you can start treatment when it is most effective.

If you are not at risk for flu complications, are young, and don’t have any other health conditions, you may want to try over-the-counter medications, rest, and drinking fluids to feel better. Because many of their symptoms overlap and you can be infected with both COVID-19 and influenza simultaneously [5], you may want to rule out COVID infection with Everlywell’s convenient at-home COVID-19 test.

Are you suffering from flu-like symptoms and wondering which treatment is right for you? Trying to tell the difference between cold, flu, and COVID symptoms is tricky. You can now book a same-day video appointment with an Everlywell clinician who can provide online flu treatment (including diagnosis and prescribing medication), where applicable. They can then send prescriptions to your pharmacy or advise you which over-the-counter medicines to take to help you fight the flu. Everlywell is committed to helping you stay healthier this flu season with easy, convenient, and affordable at-home testing and same-day video appointments.

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References

  1. Influenza treatment. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, NIH. URL. Updated April 10, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2022.
  2. Flu treatment. Centers for Disease Control. URL. Updated October 11, 2022. Accessed December 18, 2022.
  3. Sinus infections (Sinusitis). Centers for Disease Control. URL. Updated August 27, 2019. Accessed December 10, 2022.
  4. Viral pneumonia. MedlinePlus. Updated July 31, 2022. URL. Accessed December 17, 2022.
  5. Influenza (flu), diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic. URL. Updated October 15, 2022. Accessed December 17, 2022.
  6. Beutler AI, Chesnut GT, Mattingly JC, Jamieson B. FPIN's clinical inquiries. Aspirin use in children for fever or viral syndromes. Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1472. URL
  7. Hollander-Rodriguez JC, Montjoy HL, Smedra B, Prouty JP. Clinical inquiry: Do oral decongestants have a clinically significant effect on BP in patients with hypertension? J Fam Pract. 2017;66(6):E1-E2. URL
  8. Seasonal flu vaccines. Centers for Disease Control. URL. Updated August 20, 2022. Accessed December 17, 2022.
  9. Study shows flu reduces risk of severe illness. Centers for Disease Control. URL. Updated August 1, 2018. Accessed December 17, 2022.
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