Influenza, or the flu, is a common respiratory illness caused by one of several viruses. The viruses that cause flu tend to circulate each year and spread easily, usually from late fall to early spring. While symptoms may mimic those of the common cold, flu symptoms tend to hit faster and harder and can be more serious.

For most individuals with mild symptoms, the flu will go away on its own with rest and plenty of fluids to keep dehydration at bay. Also, over-the-counter medications such as cough medicine, fever reducers, or pain relievers can offer some relief for your symptoms. 

Others, however, may have severe flu that requires hospitalization, or may be at increased risk for severe flu or complications that may arise from the flu. For those individuals, there are medications known as antivirals. 

What are antiviral medications?

Antiviral medications are prescription drugs for fighting illness that is caused by a virus. A prescription from a health care provider is needed for these medications. 

There are specific medications designed to fight the viruses that cause flu. They are different from medications to treat other conditions caused by a virus, such as COVID-19. Only take antivirals developed specifically for flu when you are sick with influenza.

There are specific medications for both adults and children, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. You can learn more about the medications for this flu season here

Who should take antiviral medications for flu?

Individuals who are at increased risk for severe flu or flu complications due to age or other medical conditions should be treated with antiviral medications. Those individuals include:

  • young children
  • adults 65 years of age or older
  • pregnant individuals 
  • those who have chronic conditions, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer
  • those who are immunocompromised

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a complete listing of those conditions here.  If you are at increased risk of severe flu, contact your doctor as soon as you are experiencing symptoms so your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication to treat your illness.

When should antiviral medication be taken?

For individuals at increased risk of severe flu or flu complications, taking an antiviral as soon as possible after symptoms begin is best – ideally within one or two days of onset. However, even if you don’t start treatment for several days, the antiviral can still help, especially in reducing the severity of the illness and the risk of complications. Always be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for dosage and timing of your medication. 

What are the benefits of antiviral medications for flu?

Using antiviral medications for flu may help reduce the duration of your illness by about one day. More importantly, antiviral medications can help prevent the flu from becoming severe or leading to complications such as pneumonia that may require hospitalization.

Emergency symptoms of flu that require immediate medical attention

If you are experiencing “emergency symptoms” seek immediate medical attention at an urgent care center or emergency department near you. Such symptoms include:

  • dehydration
  • difficulty breathing or persistent chest pain
  • dizziness or confusion
  • severe muscle pain
  • seizures

You can find a complete listing of emergency flu symptoms here

Remember, if you are experiencing mild symptoms of the flu, medical care is not necessary. However, if you are at high risk of complications, contact your doctor at the first sign of flu symptoms. If you are experiencing severe symptoms or emergency flu symptoms, seek care immediately. 

For more tips on staying healthy, check out other posts on our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD

Sohaib Siddiqui, MD, is a family medicine physician at Warwick Primary Care, a Coastal Medical practice.