We all want to avoid the chills, aching muscles, headache and fever brought on by flu. Or at least shorten the time we spend in bed with it.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
So the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), which helps your body bounce back faster from flu, holds a lot of appeal.
Researchers find that taking Tamiflu within 48 hours of symptom onset can shave approximately one day from a typical seven-to-10-day illness. A more recent study showed that in patients 65 years old and older (who had more severe illness and other health conditions), up to two to three days could be shaved off using Tamiflu.
Tamiflu interferes with the proteins the flu virus uses to reproduce, giving your immune system time to destroy it. However, this drug isn’t for everyone. Here, Matthew Faiman, MD, answers key questions about the pros and cons of Tamiflu:
Q: Who are the best candidates for this antiviral medication?
A: The best candidates are people at risk of complications from the flu because their immune system doesn’t work well. For example, I would consider prescribing this medication to those who have:
- Asthma or other respiratory disorders.
- Liver, blood or neurological conditions.
- Heart disease or chronic kidney disease.
It is also a possible option for those who are significantly overweight.
Q: What are the potential complications of the flu for these patients?
A: About seven days after flu symptoms begin, people with compromised immune systems or the conditions listed above are at risk of developing a secondary bacterial infection. In some cases, this can put them in the hospital. Using Tamiflu to help shorten the flu also reduces their risk of contracting pneumonia.
Q: Why would low-risk people want to take Tamiflu?
A: Some people would say it is worth taking this medication to reduce the time they’re sick, even if it’s only by a day or so. They look at it as a way to get back to work sooner. It may also reduce their risk of infecting others — like young children or older adults, especially during a flu epidemic.
Q: Are there any downsides to taking this medication?
A: Typically, Tamiflu costs between $35 and $45, depending on your insurance. And the potential side effects can include moderate to modest nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. So you have to weigh how much that one day means to you. Also, Tamiflu doesn’t work on bacterial infections. And it’s not a substitute for the flu vaccine.
Q: How do you get Tamiflu?
A: You can only get this medication by visiting your healthcare provider within 48 hours of feeling any symptoms. Once prescribed, patients take it twice a day for five days.
Q: How do you know your symptoms are caused by flu vs. a cold?
A: The usual symptoms people would recognize as the flu include a very high fever, sore throat, muscle aches, cough, headache and maybe even a runny nose. Your typical common cold might involve a runny nose and cough, but it will not cause a high fever or muscle and body aches that come on very quickly.
Q: If you’re not a candidate for Tamiflu, can other options help?
A: I recommend lots of fluids and rest. Chicken soup, hot tea and honey are fine too, but these options have no scientific basis. They’re more for comfort.
What is most important is hydration. Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink. Make sure you control your fever. I suggest alternating acetaminophen, which is generic Tylenol®, and a generic anti-inflammatory, such as Advil® or Motrin®. Then you just need to give it time, because flu can linger.
An ounce of prevention
But better than any remedy is taking steps to avoid the flu. “If people can prevent the flu first and foremost by getting the flu vaccine, they do themselves a much greater service,” says Dr. Faiman.
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. Sick people won’t pass the virus on to family, friends, coworkers, or patients and staff at the doctor’s office.
And getting a flu shot won’t keep you in bed, missing work and miserable, for days at a time. Across the country, those sick days add up, costing billions of dollars in lost productivity each year.