60-Second Science

Treating Flu Symptoms May Create More Cases

Medicines that cut fever and pain help viruses replicate and send infectious people out into the world, at a possible cost of an additional thousand U.S. flu deaths a year


Last time you had the flu, did you take anything to relieve your aches and pains? If so, you may have inadvertently made yourself more contagious. Because pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen cut your fever—allowing flu viruses to replicate more efficiently, and increasing your chance of infecting others.

Now researchers have modeled the public health consequences of this widespread use of over-the-counter pain drugs on flu transmission in the U.S. They estimate that pain meds could increase the number of annual flu cases by five percent. And since seasonal flu kills more than 41,000 Americans a year, that five percent increase in flu victims translates to a thousand additional deaths. The finding is in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [David J. D. Earn, Paul W. Andrews and Benjamin M. Bolker, Population-level effects of suppressing fever]

Study author David Earn, of McMaster University in Ontario, suggests we should be more mindful when taking meds: "If you decide to take drugs to make yourself feel better, just recognize that you should still consider staying home or not sending kids to school. Even though they feel better, they might be more likely to transmit to others." And hey—the extra rest will do you good.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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