Image for alternative flu methods Even with modern vaccination efforts, the flu infects many Americans each year. And while most of us just suffer through it and feel better in a week or so, the flu also causes deaths and sends many people to the hospital. Influenza viruses can also cause pandemics, such as in 1918, in which at least 20 million people worldwide were killed.

But while vaccination remains the best method of control, there are other methods of treatment and prevention. Certainly you can make efforts to keep your immune system strong and reduce your risk of exposure to the viruses. Furthermore, certain antiviral drugs can help you shorten the duration and severity of the flu if and when it does strike. These medications are sometimes prescribed to prevent new infections as well.

Additional Defenses

Aside from a flu shot, what else can you do to protect yourself from the flu?

Reduce Your Risk of Infection 

There are general measures you can take to reduce your risk of getting the flu:

  • Wash your hands often, especially when you come in contact with someone who is sick. Wash your hands for 15-20 seconds with soap and water. Rubbing alcohol-based cleaners on your hands is also helpful.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have respiratory infections. The flu can spread starting one day before and ending seven days after symptoms appear. If have to be in close contact with a sick person, wear a face mask or a disposable respirator.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the tissue after you use it. Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or upper sleeve is also helpful.
  • Do not spit.
  • Do not share drinks or personal items.
  • Do not bite your nails or put your hands near your eyes, mouth, or nose.
  • Keep surfaces clean by wiping them with a household disinfectant.

It’s also a good idea—as always—to get enough sleep, eat nutritious meals, drink plenty of water, engage in regular exercise, and find ways to manage stress in your life. This will keep your immune system strong throughout the cold and flu season.

Give Antiviral Medications a Shot

Besides the flu vaccine, antiviral medications are used to both prevent and treat the flu. They are often used as a secondary preventive measure in high-risk individuals who have also been vaccinated. Antiviral drugs work by inhibiting the spread of the virus within the upper respiratory tract. Specifically, the following four prescription drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and commercially available in the United States:

  • Amantadine (Symmetrel)—an oral medication for the prevention and treatment of influenza A (Some kinds of seasonal influenza virus are resistant to this drug.)
  • Rimantadine (Flumadine)—an oral medication similar to Amantadine but with fewer side effects, also for the prevention and treatment of influenza A (Some kinds of seasonal influenza virus are resistant to this drug.)
  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)—an oral medication for the prevention and treatment of influenza A and B (Some kinds of seasonal influenza virus are resistant to this drug.)
  • Zanamavir (Relenza)—an inhaled drug, similar to Oseltamivir, for the treatment only of influenza A and B (This may worsen asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).)

As treatment, they can reduce symptoms of the flu and shorten its duration. The sooner they are administered, the more effective they are. They can also make you less contagious to others.

It is uncertain, however, whether antivirals can treat the most severe, life-threatening cases of flu in high-risk individuals. Furthermore, possible side effects range from nausea to anxiety, depending on the drug. Additionally, they are not necessarily recommended for all individuals or all age groups. Like any prescription drug, you’ll need to discuss your medical history with your doctor before deciding if an antiviral drug is right for you. All antivirals must be prescribed by a doctor.