The most intense flu season in a decade has millions of Americans looking for relief — and wondering whether a prescription drug best known by the brand name Tamiflu is the answer. The antiviral drug has been around for nearly two decades, but many consumers still may not know much about it.
Here’s what you need to know:
Question: What is Tamiflu?
Answer: It’s an antiviral drug that can stop flu viruses from multiplying in your body. It does not cure the flu, but it can make it somewhat less brutal and long-lasting. It typically cuts a day or two off the week-long illness if people start taking it within 48 hours of the first signs of fever, aching and coughing. The drug may reduce the risks of complications, such as pneumonia. It comes in pill and liquid form and is available as generic oseltamivir.
Q: Is it the only antiviral drug for flu?
A: There are a couple of other drugs, but they are administered through inhalers or intravenous lines, so they are not as widely used outside of hospitals.
Q: Should everyone with the flu take it?
A: No. Even in a flu season producing scary headlines — 63 children dead so far and thousands of people hospitalized — most healthy children and adults can weather the flu without medication, according to Anne Schuchat, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She spoke during a flu update for reporters on Friday.
Q: Who should take Tamiflu or another antiviral?
A: The CDC recommends treatment for anyone sick enough to be hospitalized or at high risk of complications — a long list of groups that includes everyone over age 65, pregnant women, infants, nursing home residents and people with heart or lung diseases. For those groups, quick antiviral treatment “could mean the difference between a milder illness and a hospital stay or worse,” Schuchat said. The CDC says doctors can use their judgment to consider the drugs for lower-risk people. It also recommends preventative doses for some high-risk people who have been exposed to the flu.
Q: What are the side effects?
A: The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting in the first couple days of treatment, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Confusion, seizures and abnormal behavior have sometimes been reported in children and teens taking Tamiflu, but the flu alone can also cause those symptoms, the FDA says.
Q: Are there shortages of the medication?
A: While nationwide supplies are adequate, spot shortages have been reported, the CDC says. Both the CDC and Tamiflu maker Genentech said last week that they are working to address gaps and to increase access to brand-name versions when generics are not available. In the meantime, consumers with prescriptions may still need to call multiple pharmacies to find a supply.
Q: How much does it cost?
A: The tragic story of a Texas woman who died of flu after declining to pay $116 for antiviral medication has brought attention to the cost. The average retail price, before discounts, is $135 for generic oseltamivir in a 10-pill package, according to the consumer site GoodRx. The site lists higher retail prices, starting at $140, for brand name Tamiflu. With insurance or discount programs, many consumers will pay quite a bit less, especially if they can find the generic medication.
Q: What’s the best treatment for people not taking antiviral drugs?
A: The old standbys, rest and fluids, are key. But so is vigilance: The flu can turn serious fast. “It’s important to understand that flu isn’t just sniffles and a cough,” Schuchat said. She urged people to seek medical attention if they have severe symptoms, such as persistent high fever, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, confusion — or suddenly feeling much worse after starting to feel better.