Tamiflu: Flu Treatment, Side Effects, and Cost
Every winter, each cough and sneeze makes you wary. Nobody wants to catch the flu and be out of work or school for a week. Unfortunately, many people catch the flu every year, and approximately 10,000-50,000 people even die from it every year.
What should you do if you get the flu? Is there any medicine you can take to help you feel better faster? How can you help protect your children from catching the flu?
While it used to be that you had to suffer through your flu systems until you felt better, now there is a medication that can help you recover and get back to your life faster. Tamiflu (also known as oseltamivir phosphate) can help you feel better faster if you take it within 48 hours of your first symptoms.
Here’s what you need to know about the flu and treating it with Tamiflu.
What is the Flu?
The word “flu” is short for influenza, which is a contagious disease caused by the influenza A or B viruses. There are several different strains of each virus type, and a different strain or strains become dominant every flu season. It is more common in the fall through early spring and spreads from person-to-person contact and plants itself in the upper or lower respiratory tracts.
The flu is more severe than a cold, although it doesn’t usually cause vomiting or diarrhea in adults (children are a different story). Since it takes one to four days for symptoms to start after you’ve been exposed to the flu virus, you can pass the flu to other people before you even start to feel sick.
The first three to four days are usually the worst as far as symptoms go, but you may continue to feel bad for a week or two.
Since the flu weakens your immune system, it can make you more susceptible to bacterial infections such as bronchitis, ear infections, sinus infections, or pneumonia.
What’s the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?
The cold and the flu are both caused by viruses and may have similar symptoms, but the flu is much more severe. It’s accompanied by worse symptoms than a cold, such as a high fever, body aches and pains, fatigue, and weakness.
A cold is more likely to be accompanied by congestion, a sore throat, and sneezing, whereas coughing, headaches, and chest discomfort may be caused by either a cold or the flu.
While the common cold is unlikely to kill you, the flu does kill people every year. Children and the elderly are more at risk of developing life-threatening complications such as pneumonia from the flu.
The flu evolves into new strains every few years, and there are over 100 different types of cold viruses. While Tamiflu can help you recover from the flu, it is not effective against colds.
Antibiotics will not be effective against either colds or the flu since they only kill bacteria, and viruses cause colds and the flu rather than bacteria.
Symptoms of the Flu
Common symptoms of the flu include any combination of the following:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Diarrhea and vomiting (mostly in children)
While a fever is a common way to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, not everyone who gets the flu will have a fever.
How is the Flu Diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to diagnose the flu based only on your symptoms and duration, especially if there is a known local outbreak of the flu virus. A blood test or sample from your nose or throat can determine which strain of the flu you have.
Tamiflu (Oseltamivir Phosphate)
Tamiflu is the name brand of a medication called oseltamivir phosphate, which is an antiviral medication that helps you fight the flu faster, especially if you start taking it within 48 hours of your symptoms starting. It can be used on anybody that is at least two weeks old to improve your symptoms and help you recover an average of 12-24 hours faster than you would without taking Tamiflu.
It shouldn’t be used as a substitute for the flu vaccine, and it should not be taken by people with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) who are not receiving dialysis. Tamiflu won’t treat or prevent bacterial infections, and you shouldn’t take it if you are allergic to oseltamivir phosphate or any of the other ingredients in Tamiflu.
Tamiflu is especially recommended for people who are more at risk of developing serious complications from the flu such as children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems.
How Does Tamiflu Work?
Tamiflu is an antiviral drug that helps attack the flu virus and prevents it from multiplying in your body. It can reduce the severity of symptoms such as stuffy nose, cough, sore throat, fever or chills, aches, and tiredness, and it can shorten the length of time you are sick by as much as 1-2 days.
If you have been exposed to somebody who has the flu, Tamiflu can also help you avoid catching it yourself, although it is generally less effective than the flu vaccine.
If Tamiflu (or its generic, oseltamivir) is started within two days of the start of symptoms, it can reduce the length of illness by an average of 12-24 hours. Flu symptoms may also be improved by Tamiflu.
Roche is the company that makes Tamiflu. They claim that Tamiflu also reduces the number of people who suffer serious complications from the flu, like pneumonia (by 44%) or hospitalization (by 63%). This has only been shown to be true in patients who test positive for the flu and not all people who display flu-like symptoms.
When given to healthy people who had been exposed to people with the flu virus, Tamiflu was able to reduce their chances of getting the flu by as much as 55%.
Who Should Take Tamiflu?
While healthy young adults will generally recover from the flu just fine without Tamiflu, special populations such as children under age 5, women who are pregnant or have given birth within the last 2 weeks, anybody with a respiratory condition like asthma or COPD, people over 65, people who live in nursing homes, and those with compromised immune systems should talk to their doctor about starting Tamiflu within 48 hours of symptoms starting.
An antiviral like Tamiflu can mean the difference between recovering at home and winding up in the hospital for these special populations. An estimated 10,000 to 50,000 people die from the flu every year.
You can also ask your doctor for a Tamiflu prescription if you feel particularly miserable or want to get back to your life sooner.
Tamiflu for Children
Tamiflu is FDA-approved for people that are at least two weeks old. It comes in both a liquid and a capsule form. In a study of children 1-12 years old, children who received Tamiflu within 48 hours of their first symptoms got better up to 1.5 days (26%) faster compared to children who didn’t take Tamiflu.
Teaching your child good hygiene such as frequently washing their hands and coughing or sneezing into a tissue can help prevent the spread of the flu. You should also use disinfecting wipes on anything your child touches to prevent the flu from spreading to others in your household.
Tamiflu may also help prevent the flu in children aged 1-12, although it’s no substitute for the flu vaccine.
The earlier your child can start Tamiflu, the sooner they can start feeling better. If your child is displaying any symptoms of the flu, especially a fever higher than 100° F, you should contact your doctor to see if your child may benefit from Tamiflu.
Tamiflu Side Effects
Tamiflu does carry a risk of side effects. The most common side effects can occasionally be prevented by taking Tamiflu with food instead of on an empty stomach and may include:
- Stomach pains
Serious side effects are possible with Tamiflu and may include:
- Sudden confusion
- Unusual behavior
These serious side effects are more common in children. If your child experiences any of these side effects, you should discontinue the Tamiflu and contact your doctor immediately.
It is also important to stop using Tamiflu and seek immediate medical attention if you have any signs of an allergic reaction including hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of the lips, tongue or throat; or skin rash. Allergic reactions may become life-threatening.
Tamiflu Safety Information
A severe rash or other allergic reaction may be very serious. You should see your doctor right away if you experience any signs of an allergic reaction.
The flu may cause an increased risk of seizure, confusion, or abnormal behavior, especially in children and adolescents. These risks are greater at the beginning of the outset of the flu.
Tamiflu may not be appropriate for you if you are pregnant or nursing or have heart problems, breathing problems, a weakened immune system (immunocompromised), kidney problems, or other medical conditions. Talk to your doctor about your medical conditions and whether or not Tamiflu is appropriate for you.
You should talk to your doctor about any medications you are taking and if you’ve had a nasal-spray flu vaccine within the last two weeks.
How Much Does Tamiflu Cost?
The cost of Tamiflu will vary depending on your insurance plan. If you don’t have insurance, or your insurance plan won’t cover Tamiflu or its generic, you may be able to find a coupon online. According to Consumer Reports, GoodRx has a coupon that lets you buy generic Tamiflu for just under $52 at Walmart. HealthWarehouse has generic Tamiflu for $85, which is much cheaper than the brand name drug at $165.
How is Tamiflu Dosed?
Tamiflu works best if you start taking it within two days of your symptoms starting. If you already have the flu, your doctor will likely recommend that you take Tamiflu every 12 hours for five days. To maintain a stable amount of medication in your bloodstream, it’s best to take it at the same time every day, with each dose spaced evenly.
If you are taking Tamiflu to prevent catching the flu from somebody else, your doctor will likely have you take it once a day for at least ten days.
Tamiflu dosing is based on your medical condition, kidney function, and response to treatment. The dosage is also based on weight for children.
It’s available as both a liquid and a capsule. If the liquid is unavailable and you are unable to swallow a capsule, the contents of a capsule can be mixed with a sweet liquid such as chocolate syrup, corn syrup, caramel topping, or light brown sugar dissolved in water. The mixture should be stirred well, and the entire mixture should be swallowed.
No matter how you take Tamiflu, you should always take the entire course that your doctor prescribes. Stopping Tamiflu early, even if you feel better, can allow the flu virus to start multiplying again and symptoms may come back.
Other Treatments for the Flu
The best thing to do when you have the flu is to stay home and rest. Forcing yourself to go to work or run other errands only spreads the flu farther amongst the population and may delay your recovery. The CDC recommends staying home until 24 hours after your fever has gone down without using any fever-reducing medication such as Tylenol in order to avoid infecting other people.
You may choose to try other treatments for your flu symptoms either in addition to or instead of using Tamiflu. Keeping in mind that over the counter cough medicine should not be given to children under the age of 4 unless instructed by a doctor, some flu treatments include:
- Decongestants, whether taken orally or by a nasal spray, can help reduce the swelling in your nasal passages. Decongestants may cause people to feel hyper and unable to sleep and may cause problems for people with high blood pressure.Nasal spray decongestants should not be used for more than three days, since stopping their use after more than three days can cause rebound congestion. On the other hand, saline nasal sprays can be used indefinitely without the same risks as nasal decongestant sprays.
- Antihistamines can reduce symptoms such as a runny nose, postnasal drip, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing, itching, and nasal discharge. Antihistamines may cause drowsiness.
- Cough medicines come in a wide variety of types, from those that suppress a cough to those that help you cough up mucus. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which cough medicine would be best for your symptoms. A persistent cough should be brought to the attention of your doctor since it may be something more serious than the flu.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers and pain relievers can help improve several pain symptoms and the misery that a fever can bring. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) can all help bring down a fever and reduce muscle aches and pains. Aspirin should not be given to children since it can cause a rare serious condition called Reye’s Syndrome. It’s important to take note of the active ingredients in every medication you are taking. Many cold and flu remedies contain several ingredients, so taking Tylenol along with a medication that already contains acetaminophen can cause a serious overdose.
- Drinking lots of fluids helps you to stay hydrated and can relieve the pain of a sore throat.
- Gargling with salt water can help reduce throat pain. A sore throat that feels extremely painful or lasts for more than a few days should be seen by a doctor because it might be strep throat, which is a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics.
Preventing the Flu
Getting the flu vaccine every year can reduce your chances of catching the flu, and it may minimize your symptoms if you do still catch it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone that is at least six months old should get a flu vaccine. You can’t catch the flu from getting the flu vaccine.
It’s especially important for certain at-risk groups such as:
- Young children.
- Adults ages 50 and older.
- People who have long-term health problems or compromised immune systems.
- Women who are or anticipate becoming pregnant during the flu season.
- Health care workers or others who frequently come into contact with sick people.
Other ways to prevent spreading or catching the flu include keeping sick people away from those who are well, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequent hand washing.
Read more in our Flu series: