Experts Advise: Talk To Your Doctor About Antivirals If You Have The Flu

Flu Virus

This is a graphic representation of the influenza virus. Despite its friendly colors, it is not friendly.

The flu is famous for its painfully lingering nature. Fever, achiness, chills, fatigue and other nasty symptoms can last for weeks on end.

But what if there were something you could do to get out of bed and back to life more quickly?

Turns out, there is.

Flu is treatable, but research shows the treatments often go unprescribed.

Antiviral influenza (flu) medications can be used by doctors to treat the flu and reduce complications. You may know these by their common names: Tamiflu®, Relenza® and Rapivab®. But scientific study paints a picture of drugs that are severely underused.

One recent study, in fact, reported that only 19 percent of high-risk outpatients who would benefit the most from and who should have gotten treated with flu antivirals actually did.

The CDC is attempting to determine reasons for the low rate of use for antivirals by medical professionals, but overall, the consensus seems to favor the idea that medical doctors are simply unaware of the CDC’s antiviral recommendations.

“This places greater responsibility in the public’s hands,” said Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada. “Because your doctor may not know about the benefits of antivirals, it underscores the need for those who are sick with flu to talk with their healthcare professionals about the use of the drugs.”

This is especially important considering the severity of this year’s flu, which prompted CDC Director Thomas Frieden to say in a recent press briefing that antiviral medicine could prevent “tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths.”

But much like lack of awareness by medical professionals of antiviral recommendations, results from CDC research shows that most people simply may not be aware that drugs to treat flu are available.

The CDC has put together a patient fact sheet about antivirals, available here. (link: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/antivirals/whatyoushould.htm)

And some of most important takeaways, according to the CDC:

  • You can only receive antiviral medications if you have a prescription from your doctor or health care provider.
  • Antiviral drugs are used early to treat hospitalized patients, people with severe flu illness, and people who are at high risk for flu complications because of their age, severity of illness, or underlying medical conditions.
  • People at high risk for flu complications who should take antivirals include those 65 and older, children under 5, pregnant women and women up to two weeks after giving birth, American Indians and Alaska natives.
  • Antiviral drug treatment can mean the difference between having milder illness instead of very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.
  • Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within 2 days of getting sick. However, starting antivirals later can still be helpful for some people.

CDC Director Frieden, in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS Newshour (link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/facing-widespread-flu-health-officials-encourage-antiviral-drug-use/), said antivirals do cut down on the duration and severity of the illness.

“They can keep you out of the hospital. If you’re hospitalized, they might keep you out of the intensive care unit, and they might be able to save your life.”

And, he added, people need to be realistic about what these medications can do.

“It’s not a miracle cure,” he said. “It doesn’t make you get out of bed and dance the next moment after you take it. But if you look at the weight of evidence, especially for people who have underlying conditions, and especially if they take it in the first 48 hours after the disease starts, then the evidence suggests that it will help you get better.”

The CDC still recommends a flu vaccine as the first and best preventive measure.

“It’s not too late,” Parker said. “Get your flu vaccine, but if you do happen to get the flu, talk to your doctor about antivirals.”

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