There’s lots of misinformation about the flu out there: the flu shot makes you sick (nope), the flu is just a really bad cold (def not), and you catch the flu from going outside with wet hair (nuh-uh). But when it comes to Tamiflu—the FDA-approved medication that promises to make your flu symptoms disappear and keep you out of the hospital—the fact is a little harder to parse from the fiction.
Since the FDA approved Tamiflu in 1999, the drug has been touted as a medication that attacks the flu virus at its source, and not only makes you feel better faster but also drastically reduces the risk that you’ll end up with secondary illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis.
But does Tamiflu really work as well as everyone claims it does?
Yes, if you take it correctly. Tamiflu does shorten the duration of a cold. In studies, the drug (chemical name: oseltamivir phosphate) has cut participants’ flu symptoms by one to two days, says Waleed Javaid, MD, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown. And it really does attack the flu at its source. “Oseltamivir inhibits the neuraminidase enzyme, which is on the virus’ surface,” Dr. Javaid says. “This limits the virus’ ability to release from cells and infect the respiratory tract.”
What it doesn’t do is lower your risk of going to the hospital or contracting secondary illnesses. In 2010, amid the swine flu panic, the World Health Organization (WHO) added Tamiflu to its list of essential medications, specifically because the drug was supposed to lower risk of serious flu complications. But seven years later, the WHO downgraded Tamiflu from a “core” drug to a “complementary” drug. Their decision was based on new evidence that Tamiflu didn’t actually lower the risk of complications, hospital admissions, or mortality.
So here’s the gist: Tamiflu does work, but not as spectacularly as everyone first thought.
In that case, when should I take Tamiflu?
Doctors recommend taking Tamiflu at the first sign of flu symptoms for a couple of reasons. First, as noted above, it can actually make your flu less severe. And second, it can lower the chance that you’ll pass the virus on to someone else. “In adults who were exposed to someone with the flu in their household, Tamiflu reduced the likelihood of contracting influenza from 12 percent to 1 percent,” says Keri Peterson, MD, a specialist in internal medicine. So if nothing else, Tamiflu is great for the sake of your family, friends, and coworkers.
The problem: There’s not much room for mistakes. Tamiflu has to be taken within 48 hours of your first flu symptoms, Dr. Peterson says. While two days might seem like a lot of time, it’s pretty short when you’re trying to guess if your sniffles and aches are from the flu or just a common cold. So if you have any doubt, cash in a visit to your doctor (Tamiflu isn’t available over the counter).
But, it’s actually pretty easy to tell the flu from a cold, Dr. Peterson says. “Flu symptoms are more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly. Patients often describe it as ‘getting hit by a truck,’” she says. One minute you feel fine and the next you’re hit with fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, cough, and congestion (though maybe not all at once). Colds, on the other hand, start slowly and usually begin with a sore throat.
Does Tamiflu have side effects?
Oddly, the potential side effects of Tamiflu are similar to those from the flu: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, dizziness, and headaches. Side effects may be more severe for children, so be sure to keep an eye out for any of them if your kid is on the medication.
The bottom line: The promise that, if you take it at the right time, Tamiflu will cut one or maybe two days out of a week (or two) of miserable cough, congestion, headache, fever, and diarrhea is definitely worth a trip to the doctor.
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