Cold and flu drugs that bring down fevers and help patients feel
better could be helping the spread of influenza, researchers reported on
People who take the fever-lowering drugs will feel
better and may get out and about sooner than they would otherwise – and
while they're still infectious, the team at Canada's McMaster University
It's a controversial study, done using mathematical
calculations and not by measuring the actual spread of disease. But it
attempts to answer some of the questions that doctors have about the
benefits of treating flu-like symptoms.
Their study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that 1,000 more people may die from influenza
in a typical year because of people taking over-the-counter cold and
flu drugs containing ibuprofen, acetaminophen or other drugs and then
going to work, school or shopping.
"We aren't saying don't take
medication. That's not the message," David Earn, who specializes in
mathematics and disease, said in a telephone interview. "Be aware that
if you take this medication, there is this effective increase in
So even if you feel better after taking a cold
pill or a dose of syrup, it's still best to stay home for a few days,
infectious disease experts say. "The take-home message for the public
is, if you are sick, stay home," Dr. Arnold Monto of the University of
Earn and colleagues took a batch of complicated
factors and plugged them into a computer: How many people get a fever
when they have flu, how many take cold medications, how much more likely
someone is to transmit flu if their fever has been lowered, and how
many flu cases there are overall.
"Because fever can actually help
lower the amount of virus in a sick person's body and reduce the chance
of transmitting disease to others, taking drugs that reduce fever can
increase transmission. We've discovered that this increase has
significant effects when we scale up to the level of the whole
population," Earn said.
"It's a substantial effect." They
calculate the widespread use of fever reducing drugs increases the
number of flu cases by 5 percent in an average year in North America.
The study is highly theoretical, says Monto, who studies how flu spreads and who wasn't involved in this research.
and flu medications often contain fever reducers, which can also help
the achy feeling that makes influenza so miserable. These drugs include
aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen, sold under brand names
such as Motrin, Aleve and Tylenol.
They can really help patients feel better. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends treating fever.
"Bringing down a fever will make the person feel better and help patients rest," the CDC advises on its website.
fever is the body's response to infection and many experts believe that
it can kill viruses and bacteria, or at least reduce their ability to
replicate in the body. Some studies done in animals suggest that
lowering a fever can actually make a flu infection last longer, although
this has not been shown in people.
"People often take — or give
their kids — fever-reducing drugs so they can go to work or school,"
Earn said. "They may think the risk of infecting others is lower because
the fever is lower. In fact, the opposite may be true: the ill people
may give off more virus because fever has been reduced."
because you, or a child, has a mild case of flu doesn't mean the person
you infect will get a mild case, too. Influenza kills anywhere between
3,000 and 49,000 people a year.
"Maybe you'll give your young
child medication to make them feel better and because they feel better
they might go jump in Granny's lap and give her a hug and a kiss," Earn
said. But that flu that just makes the child feel low could make someone
over 65 seriously ill.