We all want to avoid the chills, aching muscles, headache and fever brought on by the flu. Or at least shorten the time we spend in bed with it.
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So, the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), which helps your body bounce back faster from the flu, holds a lot of appeal. Family medicine specialist Daniel Allan, MD, explains key points of Tamiflu, including how it works, side effects and if you should consider it.
What is Tamiflu?
Tamiflu, also known as oseltamivir, is an oral antiviral drug used to prevent and treat certain kinds of influenza, aka the flu. It’s prescription-only, which means you can only get this medication by visiting your healthcare provider. Be aware, though, for it to be effective, you must start it within 48 hours of feeling any symptoms. Once prescribed, you’ll take it twice a day for five days.
What does it do?
Tamiflu interferes with the proteins the flu virus uses to reproduce, giving your immune system time to destroy it. “Tamiflu can be used to prevent infection if taken shortly after exposure,” says Dr. Allan.
But if you’re already sick, it’s also helpful in curbing symptoms and shortening your recovery time.
Researchers find that taking Tamiflu within 48 hours of symptom onset can shave approximately one day off a typical seven-to-10-day illness. A more recent study showed that in patients aged 65 years and older (who had more severe illness and other health conditions), up to two to three days could be trimmed using Tamiflu.
What it doesn’t do
While Tamiflu works in fighting influenza, Dr. Allan warns that it doesn’t work for other viral infections like the common cold or COVID-19. Additionally, it doesn’t fight bacterial infections.
Who should take Tamiflu?
“Tamiflu is best for those who are at higher risk, such as people with immune issues or lung problems,” he says. Some of those include:
- Asthma or other respiratory disorders.
- Liver, blood or neurological conditions.
- Heart disease or chronic kidney disease.
- It’s also a possible option for those who are significantly overweight.
Even if you don’t meet these criteria, talk to your healthcare provider, as there may be other reasons why it’s good for you to have a prescription.
“Even a healthier person might feel taking it is worthwhile, as it shortens the illness and lessens the risk of complications,” notes Dr. Allan. It may also reduce the risk of infecting others — like young children or older adults, especially during a flu epidemic.
Side effects and risks
Some more moderate side effects of Tamiflu include:
- Nausea or vomiting.
Dr. Allan says you should immediately contact your doctor if you experience serious side effects, including:
- Allergic reactions like skin rash, itching or hives, and swelling of your face, lips or tongue.
- Anxiety, confusion or unusual behavior.
- Breathing problems.
- Hallucination or loss of contact with reality.
- Redness, blistering, peeling or loosening of your skin, including inside of your mouth.
Preventing the need for Tamiflu
Better than any remedy, though, is taking steps to avoid the flu, and that begins with getting a flu shot. “Getting your flu shot annually reduces your risk of ever getting the flu, but also lessens the severity of the illness should you still get it,” encourages Dr. Allan.
That’s the most important message for flu season, he believes: Get the influenza vaccine each year. It helps you stay well and helps everyone around you, too. People who are sick won’t pass the virus on to family, friends, coworkers or patients and staff at their doctor’s office.
And getting a flu shot won’t keep you in bed, missing work and being miserable for days at a time like having the flu will.