Paracetamol not a weapon in fighting the flu

A lot of medicines on night table in bedroom

If you reach for the paracetamol to help fight the flu, you might want to rethink your strategy – it has no effect, according to New Zealand scientists.

A study by the New Zealand Medical Research Institute published today showed no difference between paracetamol and placebo groups in terms of the severity or duration of flu symptoms, temperature, or the amount of the virus, indicating the over-the-counter medicine has no beneficial effect.

The result is an important finding as more than 200,000 Kiwis get the flu each year – and in some cases it can be fatal, senior investigator Dr Irene Braithwaite says.

The discovery is an unexpected outcome to what is believed to be a world-first study.

Researchers had hypothesised paracetamol would actually make the flu worse. Influenza can't replicate as well at high temperatures and bringing a person's temperature down using the medicine could make it thrive.

"Fortunately this was found not be the case. Paracetamol was neither harmful nor beneficial. We found that it did not significantly reduce temperatures compared to placebo and did not make the participants feel any better," Dr Braithwaite says.

But she warned the results couldn't be used as a recommendation for or against its use in fighting the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Instead, she says the study shows it's more important for those at risk – pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions – to have the annual flu vaccination.

"This may not be foolproof, but it confers the best protection available against the influenza virus."

The study, published in the journal Respirology, was a collaboration between MRINZ, the University of Otago Wellington, Capital and Coast DHB and Canterbury Health Laboratories.

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