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6 Things You Need to Know About Tamiflu

Flu is hitting older people especially hard. Will antiviral medications help?

Q. Can taking Tamiflu help me avoid becoming seriously ill or dying of flu?

A. Maybe. One review of clinical trials found insufficient evidence to assess that possibility. A recent analysis of 11 clinical trials by the University of Georgia's Ebell found a 1 percent reduction in pneumonia among flu sufferers treated with Tamiflu. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates marketing claims based on its own review of clinical-trial evidence, does not allow Tamiflu's manufacturer Roche to assert that the medication reduces the rate of bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

Most of the clinical trials on Tamiflu have been in non-elderly, otherwise healthy adults.

But some observational research on high-risk patients is more positive. A recent analysis of 90 studies on patients hospitalized with the 2009 pandemic flu found that taking an antiviral (mostly Tamiflu) within two days was associated with a 65 percent drop in a patient's chance of dying and a substantially reduced risk of pneumonia.

Q. Can Tamiflu help prevent me from getting the flu after being exposed?

A. Probably, if taken within a couple of days of exposure. Tamiflu is approved by the FDA for this purpose. One controlled clinical trial published in 2001 found that Tamiflu was 89 percent effective at preventing flu in households where one member was already sick. The CDC does not recommend that everyone take antivirals preventively, but says the strategy can be considered for people at risk of developing complications if they catch the flu.

Q. Is Tamiflu safe?

A. First approved for adult use in 1999, Tamiflu has been used by tens of millions of people. The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting, each reported by about 10 percent of patients. FDA-approved labeling for the drug says that patients, especially kids, should be watched for delirium and abnormal behavior, an "uncommon" reaction that may be linked to the flu itself.

Q. I suspect I have the flu. Is there any reason to seek medical care besides getting an antiviral medicine?

A. Most people recover after six or seven days without treatment.

But those who are worried about the severity of their illness — are short of breath, dizzy, sick to their stomachs, say — should consult a doctor, says Michael Ison, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist with Northwestern University. So should people 65 or older who are at risk for serious problems from flu because of their age or who have an underlying health problem. "There are a lot of illnesses that look like flu," he says, such as bacterial pneumonia or another kind of virus. To find out for sure, go see your doctor.

Freelance health writer Katharine Greider is a frequent contributor to AARP.

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