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All you need to know about flu medication

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Prescription optionsOTC medicationsNatural remediespreventionSummary
If you’re gearing up for flu season, here’s everything you need to know—from antivirals and over-the-counter medications to vaccines that can help prevent it altogether. 
Medically reviewed by Alisha D. Sellers, BS Pharmacy, PharmD
Updated on

The flu is a virus that affects the respiratory system and can lead to moderate to severe health complications depending on a variety of factors, such as age and the presence of other health problems.

But flu medication is available, and it can be an effective way to shorten the length of the illness and avoid the risk of serious complications.

Antiviral medications are the best defense against the influenza virus. They work by killing or preventing the growth of the virus in the body, and they’re designed to target specific strains.

In addition to antiviral prescription medications, there are also over-the-counter medications, as well as natural remedies, that can help reduce the severity and duration of the illness. 

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Prescription options

A person wrapped in a blanket on a couch. They may have the flu and take medication for it.
Photography by Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Antiviral drugs for the flu most commonly come in the form of pills, liquids, or an inhaled powder, and they’re designed to help the body fight the two major types of the influenza virus: type A and type B

Studies show that these treatments work best when started within one or, at most, two days of getting sick. However, if the individual is at high risk for serious complications, their doctor may still recommend antivirals after two days of being ill.

Research shows that older adults are more at risk of such complications due to their immune responses lowering with age.

There are currently four FDA-approved antiviral drugs on the market to treat the flu:

Oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu)

Oseltamivir phosphate, known under the brand name Tamiflu, attacks the flu virus to keep it from multiplying in the body. It comes in either pill or liquid form.

In addition to being an effective treatment for adults, it is also FDA-approved for the treatment of children and infants 14 days and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Zanamivir (Relenza)

Relenza is a branded medication that comes in powder form and is referred to as a receptor antagonist, which keeps the flu virus from spreading in the body.

It’s inhaled, so people with asthma or other breathing problems are not recommended to use this form of antiviral. It’s FDA-approved for people 7 years and older, according to the CDC. 

Peramivir (Rapivab)

Peramivir blocks the enzyme responsible for releasing the virus from infected cells. It’s approved for adults and children six months and older. This drug is given via an injection by a healthcare professional and is not likely to be prescribed for use at home. 

Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)

The branded medication Xofluza also blocks the enzymes responsible for the virus reproducing, and it helps shorten the duration of the influenza life cycle. It’s given in a pill as a single dose and is approved for adults and children five and over. It is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women.

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OTC medications

There are several types of over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can address specific symptoms associated with the flu.

  • Stuffy nose: Nasal decongestants or nasal saline sprays that help clear your nasal passages
  • Cough without phlegm: Cough suppressants, which help block the cough reflex
  • Cough with phlegm: Expectorants, which work to thin the mucus so it is easier to cough up
  • Fever, headache, and pain: Pain relievers and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve)

Natural remedies

In addition to OTC medications, there are also several home remedies used to treat the symptoms of the flu. 
Immune boosters such as zinc and vitamin C work to support the body’s natural defenses and slow down the progression of the flu virus.

Zinc has been shown to help the body make germ-fighting white blood cells and regulate the immune response in your respiratory system. Medical literature shows that Vitamin C enhances the functioning of immune cells in the presence of respiratory infections like the flu.

Of course, the best natural remedy for the flu, as with any illness, is plenty of water to prevent dehydration and support the entire body system and plenty of rest. Getting back to the status quo takes a lot of energy, so the body requires considerably more sleep and physical rest than usual. 


In addition to supporting the immune system, prevention of the flu can come in the form of a vaccine. Healthcare professionals recommend the flu vaccine as a preventive measure for all people six months or older, but especially for those who may be at greater risk for severe complications. 

These individuals should get the vaccine in October, which is when the flu season typically begins. It takes about 14 days after vaccination to reach peak antibody protection.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness in the overall population by between 40% and 60%. And even if you do get sick, there are studies that show the vaccine can help reduce the severity and duration of the illness. 


The flu virus impacts everyone differently. Those with lowered immune systems or other health issues are recommended to get the flu vaccine each year before the start of flu season and to seek antiviral treatments if they fall ill with the flu.

As well as prescription medications, OTC pain relievers and fever reducers can help with symptoms, while natural remedies such as vitamin C and zinc can support the body’s overall functioning.