When COVID-19 infections are stalking the land, turning life upside and killing people, it may be tough to pay attention to influenza. However, flu season is not yet over. Although it is less exotic, this viral infection is also capable of killing vulnerable individuals and making hundreds of thousands miserable. There is no drug to treat COVID-19, but there are a few medications that can shorten the duration of flu and make the infection less severe. Perhaps the most common is oseltamivir (Tamiflu). One reader wrote to tell us that Tamiflu side effects were worse than the infection itself.
Tamiflu Side Effects:
Q. I saw your column in which a reader wrote to say how well Tamiflu worked. I personally have the opposite perspective.
In 2016, I had a fever and general malaise, no pain but very tired. I went to urgent care. They thought it was flu, but a flu test was negative. Nonetheless, the doctor was adamant that I had flu and prescribed Tamiflu.
My husband went to pick it up and even with insurance, it was $150. Because I was so tired and listless, I didn’t bother to read about it. I took three of the pills as prescribed and was violently nauseated. I couldn’t even sip water. Since I had not had any nausea before taking the pills, I knew it had to be the Tamiflu. I stopped taking the pills and was soon feeling better.
I think Tamiflu is a menace and provides false hope to people at outrageous prices. My flu symptoms were gone in about a week. When I was well enough, I read up on Tamiflu and was horrified to learn that in addition to nausea and vomiting, Tamiflu can cause suicidal thoughts. Why would people would prefer the risks of Tamiflu side effects to a few days of bed rest?
Using Tamiflu Appropriately:
A. According to Paul Auwaerter, MD, Clinical Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the usual rapid influenza diagnostic test is far from perfect. It does not detect all cases of influenza. During flu season, doctors may rationally prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu) for an at-risk patient with symptoms even after a negative influenza test.
That said, many other viruses cause flu-like symptoms, and oseltamivir won’t work against them. Sometimes physicians try to limit the use of this antiviral medication only to those who may develop complications. They worry that overprescribing could allow influenza viruses to develop resistance to it.
Tamiflu Side Effects:
You are correct that Tamiflu side effects include nausea and vomiting. This can certainly be an unpleasant experience. Doctors sometimes recommend that you take the pill (just one at a time) with some food to reduce that possibility.
Research shows that people hospitalized with the flu who are treated with Tamiflu are less likely to end up in the ICU. They are also more likely to survive their illness (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 2019). It appears to be especially helpful against influenza A H3N2, a strain that was especially virulent last year. Anyone who is not hospitalized should definitely be informed about Tamiflu side effects. Some might prefer, as you do, to recover without medication.