Focus on flu treatment

The seasonal flu is a very common respiratory infection, affecting the airways and lungs. It's estimated that about 10% to 25% of Canadians get the flu every year. Most people who get the flu will recover with within a week to 10 days.

However, some people may be at risk of flu complications and more serious illness. This group is also more likely to be hospitalized. At-risk people include children under 5 years old, pregnant women, people with medical conditions, and people who are older than 65 years.

Use our tool, "Are you at risk of flu complications?" to find out if you are at increased risk of complications from the flu. If you are at increased risk and you experience flu-like symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor may recommend antiviral treatment, which can reduce the risk of complications, reduce symptoms, and shorten the length of illness if taken within the 48 hours of the start of your symptoms.

Antiviral treatment is usually recommended for people who are at risk of flu complications, for children, and for people who are experiencing severe illness (people who have more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, high fever lasting more than 3 days, chest pain, bloody or coloured spit, sudden dizziness or confusion, bluish or greyish skin colour, severe vomiting, or vomiting that won't go away). Antivirals are medications used to treat the flu, but they don't make you immune to the virus. The flu virus infects cells of the lungs and airways. Antiviral medications work by preventing the flu virus from spreading to healthy cells throughout your body.

Antivirals can be helpful for people at risk of flu complications because they can shorten the duration of the flu and reduce symptoms if they are taken within 2 days of the start of flu symptoms. Studies show that in otherwise healthy people, taking antivirals can shorten the length of the illness by up to 1.5 days; in the at-risk group, up to 2.5 days. Taking antivirals will reduce the risk of flu-related complications in all people including the at-risk group.

Antivirals are not appropriate for everyone. Talk to your doctor about whether antiviral medication to treat the flu is right for you. Use the Doctor Discussion Guide to help you prepare for the visit to the doctor.

Other flu management options do not target the flu virus specifically. They treat symptoms of the flu and help prevent the spread of flu. They include:

Ways to prevent spreading the flu:

  • frequent, proper hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • coughing and sneezing into your arm or sleeve, or using a tissue and disposing of it immediately
  • staying home when sick and avoiding crowds
  • keeping common surfaces clean and disinfected

Ways to treat flu symptoms and make you feel better:

  • drinking lots of fluids
  • getting plenty of rest
  • taking medications for specific symptoms:
    • Aches and fever can be treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is also an option for adults but not for children under 18, since it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, which is a serious condition affecting the nervous system and liver.
    • A cough can be treated with a cough suppressant. Do not give cough medication to children under 6 years old.
    • A sore throat can be treated with throat lozenges or sprays containing ingredients such as dyclonine, benzocaine, or hexylresorcinol.
    • Nasal congestion can be treated with oral (by mouth) decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, or nasal spray decongestations such as oxymetazoline or xylometazoline (do not use nasal sprays longer than 3 to 5 days, as longer use can make congestion worse).

Treatment for flu works best when started as soon as possible after you notice symptoms. Do not hesitate to contact your doctor if you experience symptoms, especially if you are at risk of flu complications.

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