Most people think of the flu as a minor inconvenience, in the same category as a bad cold. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that influenza is a major killer.
In an average winter 36,000 Americans succumb to the flu or its complications. In a bad year, over 70,000 have died. To put this into perspective, that’s more people than die each year from AIDS or automobile accidents.
Although a flu shot can be an effective preventive measure, it is not foolproof, especially for elderly patients with chronic conditions. Under good conditions, the flu vaccine protects about two thirds of those immunized. But when people are debilitated, the benefits drop significantly.
So how should you or those you love guard against the flu bug? It may come as a shock, but there are effective anti-viral medications that can either prevent the flu or speed recovery. But patients will have to ask their doctors for a prescription.
The first medicine proven effective against influenza (Type A flu) was amantadine (Symmetrel). It has been available for decades. Because it is available generically the cost for a course of treatment is under $10.
Some doctors prefer to prescribe newer anti-flu medications. Flumadine (rimantadine) is a chemical cousin of amantadine. It appears less likely to cause side effects such as nausea, dizziness and insomnia. Like amantadine, Flumadine is only effective against type A influenza.
Although this type of flu is generally more serious and more likely to cause complications or death, influenza B can also be dangerous for those who have chronic health problems. That’s why two newer flu medicines are promising.
Tamiflu is an oral medication that works against both kinds of influenza. Relenza, an inhaled anti-viral medicine also works against type A and type B flu. This drug, however, may pose a risk for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
All of these anti-flu medicines are available only by prescription. They are effective only when started within the first day or two after flu symptoms begin. This can pose a logistical problem, since getting a doctor’s appointment in the middle of a flu epidemic could be a challenge, to say the least.
Fortunately, a new rapid test allows office testing for influenza and gives results within ten minutes. This should allow doctors to prescribe flu medication promptly for infected patients and to determine who would not benefit from an anti-viral drug.
Patients and doctors both need to keep in mind that antibiotics such as Cipro do nothing for people with flu, and carry a risk of side effects. And over-the-counter remedies are also relatively ineffective for influenza.
CDC’s recognition that the flu kills so many older people should impel those at risk to get vaccinated. If the flu strikes your community remember that flu drugs can be used preventively. And if you come down with a really bad cough and fever, there is a quick test to determine if a flu medicine will cure you within a few days.

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