Influenza treatment

Influenza (the flu) is a viral infection that causes a sudden onset of high fevers, cough, sore throat, aches and pains and headaches. The flu can be a serious illness, especially in older people, children and people with other health conditions.

Self-care measures if you have influenza include:

  • drinking plenty of fluids; and
  • getting plenty of rest - stay in bed for one to 3 days to let your body recover (and reduce the likelihood of infecting other people).

Medicines that can be used to treat influenza include:

  • medicines to treat symptoms such as pain and fever; and
  • antiviral medicines.

Analgesics and antipyretics

Analgesics, also known as painkillers, and antipyretics, which help reduce fever, should be taken regularly to help lower the high fever associated with having the flu. They will also help relieve the muscle aches and headache. Available products include aspirin, paracetamol, and ibuprofen.

Aspirin is an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) similar to ibuprofen. Aspirin should not be given to children aged 16 years and younger, because it can cause a serious complication known as Reye’s syndrome.

Cold and flu preparations

Cold and flu preparations are available from your pharmacist. These medicines may contain:

  • analgesics (painkillers);
  • decongestants (to help treat a blocked or stuffy nose);
  • antihistamines (to help treat sneezing and runny nose); and
  • cough suppressants (antitussives).

Take care to carefully read the ingredients of any cold or flu formulations that you take so that you don’t double up on ingredients, especially paracetamol, ibuprofen or antihistamines. If you take a combination product and then also take additional medicines, you risk overdosing on some types of medicines.

Side effects of cold and flu preparations will depend on the formulation used. Some preparations are not suitable for use with other medicines or for people with certain health conditions. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking these preparations.

Cough and cold medicines should not be used by children younger than 6 years. For older children, always check with your doctor or pharmacist whether the product is safe for your child.

Antiviral medicines

Antiviral medicines such as oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu) and zanamivir (brand name Relenza) can be prescribed by your doctor. These medicines can be effective in reducing the length of time you are unwell with influenza and the severity of symptoms, plus may help prevent complications. Antivirals provide most benefit when taken within 48 hours of symptoms developing.

Most people get better on their own within about a week without the need for antiviral medicines. Antiviral medicines are generally only recommended for people with severe symptoms or in those at risk of developing complications from influenza.

Possible side effects associated with antiviral medicines include nausea and vomiting, dizziness, delirium and diarrhoea.

Antibiotics?

Influenza is caused by a virus so antibiotics do not help, unless you get a bacterial infection following the flu, which sometimes happens.

Last Reviewed: 8 April 2014
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References

1. Influenza (revised June 2010). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2013 Nov. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Mar 2014).
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Treating influenza (flu) (updated 12 Jul 2012). http://www.cdc.gov/flu/pdf/freeresources/updated/treating_flu.pdf (accessed Mar 2014).
3. MayoClinic.com. Influenza (flu) (updated 21 Feb 2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/basics/definition/con-20035101 (accessed Mar 2014).
4. World Health Organization (WHO). Influenza (seasonal) (updated Mar 2014). http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs211/en/# (accessed Mar 2014).
5. NPS Medicinewise. Medicines and treatments for flu (influenza) (published 24 Feb 2012). http://www.nps.org.au/conditions/respiratory-problems/respiratory-tract-infections/for-individuals/conditions/influenza/for-individuals/medicines-and-treatments (accessed Mar 2014).
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