Antiviral medications safe treatment for influenza

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3 min read

Dear Doctors: I thought I had a bad summer cold, but it turned out to be the flu. I didn’t know that can happen in the summer. Urgent care offered me an antiviral medication, but since I’m not familiar with those, I said no. I would like to know more about antiviral treatment for the flu.

Dear Reader: While it’s possible to get infected with the influenza virus at any time of year, a case of summer flu is somewhat rare. That’s because influenza tends to be a cyclical virus. Infection rates begin rising in the fall, peak in the winter months and subside again with the return of longer days and warmer weather. Interestingly, this pattern occurs worldwide. In the United States, flu season runs from roughly October through April. In the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, the flu surges from roughly April through October. Why the influenza virus emerges as the days begin to shorten is a subject of study and debate, and the answer is not yet clear. What we do know is that indoor living during the colder months creates the ideal breeding ground for this highly transmissible virus.

For anyone lucky enough not to be familiar with the symptoms of the flu, they include fever, body and muscle aches, headache, cough, congestion and a stuffy or runny nose. While these can strongly suggest an influenza infection, a definitive diagnosis requires a test. That’s because different respiratory viruses can produce similar symptoms.

Once the flu is confirmed, choices regarding treatment can be made. Among them are the antiviral medications you are asking about. This is a class of prescription drugs that can reduce the severity of the disease by making the virus less efficient at replicating and invading the cells. Antiviral medications can slightly shorten the length of someone’s illness. More important, they can prevent flu symptoms from escalating.

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Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD
Complications from the flu can include ear infection, bronchitis, pneumonia and systemic inflammation that can involve the organs. Antivirals are an important option for people with health conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease who are at higher risk of hospitalization. Antiviral drugs are most effective when taken as soon as possible after exposure to the influenza virus, or as soon as symptoms begin to appear.

Influenza isn’t the only disease for which antiviral drugs are available. Others include COVID-19, swine flu, hepatitis B and C, Ebola and HIV. However, it’s important to understand that antiviral drugs are not interchangeable. Each medication is specific to one type of virus. For example, if you take an antiviral for the flu but it turns out you have COVID-19, you won’t get the benefits of the drug. That’s why if someone is a candidate to receive an antiviral medication for a respiratory illness, a test is needed to be sure the correct drug will be prescribed.

Antivirals are a safe and effective treatment option. Potential side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Meanwhile, with flu activity on the rise, we urge everyone who is eligible to please get their flu vaccine.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)