Should You Use Antiviral Medications for the Flu?

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Antiviral medications are a class of drugs that are typically used to prevent or shorten the duration of the influenza virus. They are considered the second line of defense against the flu.

Five different antiviral medications are currently approved for use in the United States. They include Tamiflu (oseltamivir), Relenza (zanamivir), Rapivab (Peramivir), amantadine and rimantadine. However, the flu viruses that make people sick are extremely resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, so these two medications are not recommended to prevent or treat influenza at this time.

When to Use Them

Antiviral medications are available by prescription only. If you are diagnosed with the flu, your health care provider may prescribe antiviral medications for you if:

  • You have the flu and want to shorten the duration of the symptoms. In this case, the medication must be started within the first 48 hours of symptoms to be effective.
  • You are in close contact with someone who has the flu, such as a family member (paired with the vaccine)
  • There is a widespread outbreak in your community and you or someone you are close to are at high risk for complications (paired with the vaccine)
  • You may be exposed to the flu and the flu shot is not effective, or you cannot get it because of an allergy

How to Use Antiviral Medications

Each medication is given in a different way and may not be appropriate for certain groups of people. Your healthcare provider can determine which medication is right for you and your situation.

Tamiflu is available as a pill or liquid, Relenza is an inhaled powder and Rapivab is given through an IV. They are given for different lengths of time and at different doses depending on age and what the medicine is being used for (treatment or prevention).

Although these medicines can be effective at treating or preventing the flu, they can cause side effects. Make sure you talk to your doctor about what to expect if you are prescribed one of these antivirals.

The Bottom Line

Antiviral medications can be very useful in helping to prevent or shorten the duration of the flu. However, they should not replace flu vaccines as your primary means of prevention. Because all of the antiviral medications are available only by prescription, it is important to see your healthcare provider if you believe you have the flu or may need antiviral medications to prevent it. Only your healthcare provider can determine what is best for you and your situation.


”Key Facts About Antiviral Drugs and Influenza (Flu).” Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases 18 Sep 07. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. 

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