About the Flu: Treatment and Prevention

The normal treatment for flu is rest, plenty of liquids, and ASA or acetaminophen-type drugs to fight fever. Children and teenagers with flu shouldn't take acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). The combination of influenza and ASA is linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious condition affecting the brain and liver. Many over-the-counter cold medicines contain aspirin-type drugs. Ask your doctor about this.

Antibiotics are useless against viral diseases like flu and the cold, but they're given for secondary bacterial infection.

Amantadine (Symmetrel®) is used in Canada to fight flu in high-risk patients. It can shorten the disease if taken within 24 to 48 hours of symptoms appearing. It can also protect you from type A flu if you're likely to be exposed to the virus in the next few days. It carries some risk of side effects including insomnia and confusion. Amantadine is useless against type B viruses, and type A viruses can easily develop resistance.

Zanamivir (Relenza®) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) are new drugs that prevent newly formed viruses from escaping the infected cells that produced them. This limits further spread of the virus in the body. Zanamivir is an inhaled spray, whereas oseltamivir is a pill. Taken within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of illness, these drugs reduce contagion and in general cut an average 1 to 3 days off the symptoms.

Only flu antibodies can prevent flu. The only ways to generate antibodies are to be infected or to get vaccinated. Vaccination needs to be repeated every year.

Each spring, a worldwide network of physicians and testing labs decide which flu strains are likely to cause trouble and design that year's vaccine accordingly. The vaccine gives resistance to the type B strain and the two type A strains that are expected to predominate in the coming flu season.

The vaccine is over 80% effective in preventing flu in healthy adults. It's given to anyone classified as high-risk, health workers, and anyone who wants to avoid the flu.

High-risk groups include:

  • anyone aged 65 years or older
  • people with chronic cardiovascular, pulmonary, or metabolic disorders (including diabetes)
  • those with kidney disease, anemia, immunosuppression, or asthma
  • residents of nursing homes
  • children receiving long-term aspirin therapy who may be at risk of developing Reye's syndrome
  • children 6 months or older with respiratory disorders.

Sometimes, as in the 1997-8 flu season, a new mutation appears after the year's vaccine has been prepared and it's too late to change it. Fortunately, so far the new strains haven't been different enough to completely bypass the resistance offered by the vaccine.

Learn more about Cough and Flu