Most healthy people who become sick with the flu recover without needing to seek medical attention. For some, complications can arise. An estimated more than 250,000 Americans have been hospitalized due to the flu this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there is no cure for the flu, treatment can prevent complications and reduce serious symptoms, especially for high-risk patients.
"There are antiviral medications that are effective against influenza," says Dr. Pritish Tosh, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist. "The most common is oseltamivir, commercially known as Tamiflu. And in healthy people, it can reduce the symptoms of influenza from five days on average down to four days on average." Antiviral medications are not the same as antibiotics and work best when taken within two days of becoming sick.
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Antiviral treatment is recommended for these high-risk groups:
Antiviral medications are prescribed by a health care provider.
Dr. Tosh says the reason health care professionals don't want to indiscriminately use this antiviral medication is twofold. "One, there are shortages. And toward the end of the season, we want to make sure that people who are at highest risk of influenza complications, namely the very old, the very young and people with underlying medical conditions, have access to oseltamivir or other antiviral medications to prevent severe outcomes."
The best protection against the flu remains getting your annual flu vaccine. An antiviral medication is not a substitution for your yearly flu shot. Rather, it's considered a second line of defense.
"Otherwise healthy people who get influenza, who don't have evidence of severe infection will get better with plenty of rest and plenty of fluids," says Dr. Tosh.