Do Painkillers Worsen The Flu?

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Boxes of cold medication are seen in a pharmacy in Toronto

Seeking relief from cold or flu symptoms? You might want to think again before reaching for painkillers.

For years, flu and cold suffers have been advised to take over-the-counter flu remedies, which usually include painkillers. Although painkillers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin, reduce fever and help patients feel better, they can make symptoms worse, according to the Washington Post, citing a new report.

Painkillers taken to treat fevers could cause 2,000 flu deaths each year in the United States alone, according to a report published recently at the Royal Society by researchers at Canada’s McMaster University.

The study shows that when some patients reduce their symptoms with cold and flu medications, they feel better and return to normal activities, including work or school while still infected. Even though patients feel better, they are still able to infect others.

Fever is thought to be an antiviral combatant because many viruses find it hard to reproduce at temperatures above the body’s normal 98.6 degrees. But research is unclear whether reducing fever slows recovery.

Lowering fever, according to some studies, may prolong viral infections and increase the amount of virus people can pass on to others, according to David Earn at McMaster University in Ontario. To find an answer, he and his colleagues turned to a 1982 study that showed that ferrets, a common animal model for human flu, produced more seasonal flu virus if their fevers were lowered either with painkillers or by having their fur shaved off, the report says.

His team used the findings to estimate how much more virus people with ordinary flu might produce if their fevers were suppressed, and the researchers used epidemiological studies in people to calculate how many more cases of flu this might cause, the Washington Post writes.

Using a mathematical model, they applied the estimates to the number of Americans each year who get the flu, develop fever and take the drugs. Researchers determined that painkiller use in the U.S. could be increasing the transmission of ordinary winter flu by an estimated 5 percent, the Post reports.

An average of 41,000 people, most of them elderly, die of flu each winter in the U.S., the report says. Painkiller use, the report says, could mean 700 to 2,000 extra deaths per year, depending on the flu strain circulating.

For more information on this season’s flu, go to the CDC website.

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