Why you should avoid flu medication when you're running a feverS

Many of us take over-the-counter flu medication to suppress a fever, but as a Canadian mathematician has shown, this practice actually works to encourage its spread — a problem that costs as many as 1,000 preventable deaths in the U.S. each year.

Fevers make us feel like crap, no doubt about it. But they actually serve a purpose by lowering the amount of virus in our body, thus reducing the chance of transmitting the disease to others. But by avoiding these symptoms through medication, like taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen and acetylsalicylic acid, and by not staying home instead, we encourage the spread of the influenza virus.

And the numbers prove it, say McMaster University researchers David Earn and Ben Bolker, both professors of infectious disease and mathematics.

The CBC tells us more:

"We put together a chain — how many people have influenza, how many of them take these anti-fever drugs, how much does that increase the amount of virus they give off, how much does that increase the chance that they're going to affect somebody else, how much does that increase the overall size of the seasonal flu epidemic," said Ben Bolker, professor of math and biology.

"When you put all those numbers together, the answer you get is it increases the size of the annual influenza epidemic by about five per cent."

That sounds like a small percentage, but considering the number of people who contract the flu on an annual basis, it's actually very significant.

"The influenza epidemic is huge — it's millions of people," he said. "Five per cent is a lot."

Add in the number of deaths related to the flu — about 40,000 a year in the U.S. alone, Bolker said — and that number becomes even more significant.

Read the entire article at CBC. And check out the entire study at Proceedings of the Royal Society B: "Population-level effects of suppressing fever."

Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.