Monday Medical: Influenza drugs helpful for some
January 24, 2011
Every year, millions of people in the United States get influenza, or the flu. This illness now has arrived in Northwest Colorado.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets seasonal flu each year.
Yampa Valley Medical Center Infection Prevention Coordinator Steve Hilley said there are three types of flu viruses — A, B and C. Types A and B are responsible for the widespread outbreaks that occur almost every winter.
Type C usually causes a mild respiratory illness (or may not produce symptoms at all) and does not cause epidemics.
Uncomplicated flu gets better with or without treatment, but it can cause considerable discomfort during the course of the illness. Many people use over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms.
Because the flu is a viral infection, it can be treated with an antiviral medication, Hilley said. Antibiotics are not an effective treatment for the flu. Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria and are not effective against viral infections.
There are four antiviral prescription drugs on the market that treat flu. These medications attack the virus that causes the flu, thus shortening the time it takes for symptoms to improve in uncomplicated cases of types A and B flu.
All four of the antiviral medications are different in terms of who can take them, how they are given and side effects. A doctor decides whether an antiviral drug is needed and which one to use.
"It is important to understand that these drugs are not a cure for influenza," Steamboat Springs family medicine physician Dr. Phaedra Fegley said. "They don't make people instantly better, but they may save flu sufferers a day or two of aching and sniffling.
"Currently, we are reserving use of flu medication for people who are at higher risk for severe disease. Most healthy individuals will still need to wait for the illness to pass."
Flu drugs are meant to be taken within the first two days of experiencing symptoms.
"That means if you arrive at the doctor's office after experiencing symptoms for more than two days, it is too late to receive a flu drug," Fegley said. "There is no information about how effective these drugs are if treatment is started more than two days after flu symptoms start.
"It is also important to note that these antiviral medications are only effective against flu viruses. They will not help symptoms associated with the common cold or the many other flu-like illnesses caused by viruses that circulate in the winter."
Hilley said antiviral medications sometimes are prescribed during a major flu outbreak as a preventive measure, especially for people who are at high risk for complications from flu.
"However, antiviral drugs are not meant to take the place of a flu shot," Hilley said. "A flu shot, avoiding people who are sick and good hand hygiene are the best way to prevent and control influenza."
Flu drugs also do not eliminate the risk of flu complications, such as bacterial infections, viral pneumonia, and heart or other organ system problems.
Fegley recommends a return trip to a doctor for anyone taking a flu drug who does not get better or who experiences new symptoms. A bacterial infection or other illness that feels like the flu may be present.
Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.