Can an antiviral drug help you fight the flu?

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When the flu hits, it can feel miserable, with fever, chills, body aches and nausea.

Dr. Jesse Couk, an infectious disease physician at Piedmont Hospital Atlanta, says if you think you have flu, get to the doctor.

"You should get testing right away," Dr. Couk says.  "Flu symptoms come on pretty suddenly. So you may be feeling well and you sort of feel it coming on in the course in an hour, the fever and chills, taking over. That's the time to go get tested.

An antiviral medication like Tamiflu or Relenza can help. 

But, first, Couk says, you want to make sure you actually have the flu, not something else.

"There are other viruses that can cause fever and flu-like illness that are not flu," he says.  "Tamiflu will not help you for those other viruses."

Most urgent care clinics and ERs have rapid flu tests that can diagnose the virus in minutes.

Dr. Couk says once flu is confirmed, then you can talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for an antiviral.

"But the timing is very important," Couk says.  "You want to start Tamiflu as early as possible."

The medication works best if it's started within the first 48 hours. 

Even then, it won't stop the flu, but it can reduce the time you're sick by a day or two, and lower your risk of landing in the ER with flu complications.  

That's why the CDC recommends anyone at risk of severe flu complications, like pregnant women, people with heart, lung or kidney disease, or those 65 and older begin antiviral treatment quickly.

"But again, the impact of the medication is small," Couk says.  "It can decrease your symptoms, but perhaps only by a day."

Dr. Couk says your best option is to prevent the flu by getting vaccinated.

He recommends getting a flu shot as possible before the flu season heats up.

But, if someone in your home does get the flu, you can use antivirals to keep from getting sick, too. 

And that's especially important, Couk says, if you fall into one of those high-risk categories for a bad outcome of the flu.