Medically Approved

What is the difference: prescription flu meds vs. OTC meds?

Flu medication

Optum Perks Author

By Optum Perks Author


What is the best way to treat the flu?

To prevent the flu, the best thing you can do is get the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available in your area. Though some people may still get the flu after getting the shot, it is your best defense.


If you’ve had the flu, you know the symptoms: chills, fever, cough, sore throat, aches and pains, vomiting and diarrhea. As soon as you notice these symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible – ideally within the first 48 hours.

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to fight the virus. If you have had the virus longer than 48 hours, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter flu or cold medicines. If you are not sure which is the best for the flu, the information below explains how prescription drugs work compared to over-the-counter medications.

Prescription medications can fight the flu

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to treat the flu such as Tamiflu, Relenza and Xofluza. These medications fight the virus in your body and limit how far it can spread.


If you start taking antivirals within 48 hours of noticing symptoms, you have a better chance of limiting the amount of time you’re sick and contagious. You’re able to make others sick 1 day before developing flu symptoms and up to 7 days after that. Antibiotics will not help you treat the flu and should not be prescribed. They are used to get rid of bacteria – not viruses.

While antiviral drugs will fight the virus, the flu still has to run its course. For these drugs to be most effective, it’s important to get lots of rest, plenty of fluids and eat regular meals to keep your strength.

Prescription medication can prevent the flu

In the case of a flu outbreak, doctors may prescribe an antiviral as well as the flu vaccine for high-risk people. These can be adults over 65, pregnant and post-natal women, people with weakened immune systems. People are advised not to use antiviral drugs to replace the flu vaccine.

Over-the-counter medicine can manage flu symptoms

There are no over-the-counter drugs that will fight the flu in your body, but there are certain flu and cold medicines you can get to help you deal with symptoms. You do not need a prescription for these.


You should ask your doctor whether it’s OK to take pain medication, decongestants or antihistamines to treat your flu symptoms.

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See the links below to find relief for cold and flu symptoms:

  • Coughs:
    • Mucinex and Mucinex for Children (used to thin mucus so it can be taken from the body by coughing)
    • Delsym (to treat dry coughs without mucus)
  • Runny Nose:
    • Oral antihistamines: Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra
    • Nasal sprays: Flonase
  • Sore Throat:
    • Throat sprays and lozenges: Chloraseptic
    • Painkillers: Advil, Tylenol
  • Fever & Pain: Tylenol