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6 Things You Need to Know About Tamiflu

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

En español l Quite suddenly, it seems, you feel just awful. Sore throat, cough, chills and body aches all but knock you off your feet. The flu comes on quickly, and this year, in particular, it's hitting older people hard. Hospitalizations for flu among people age 65 and older are spiking to levels not seen since the CDC began tracking the statistic five years ago.

Woman sneezing into tissue, what you should know about Tamiflu

Does Tamiflu really cure the flu? — Getty Images

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Even those who've had a flu shot aren't necessarily immune; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests this year's vaccine is 60 percent effective, perhaps much less so for seniors. Older people, along with small children, pregnant women and people with health problems such as lung or heart disease, are more likely to get very sick from the influenza virus, developing complications such as pneumonia. Those 65 or older account for some nine out of 10 flu-related deaths in the United States.Though most people recover from flu within a week or so with just rest and fluids, the CDC is urging those who fall seriously ill or are at risk for flu complications to seek prompt medical attention.

And for these patients, the agency says, doctors should not delay prescribing an antiviral drug — most often Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or less frequently an inhaled drug called zanamivir or Relenza. "For high-risk patients, antiviral treatment really can mean the difference between a milder illness and a stay in the hospital or in the intensive care unit or even death," CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., said in a briefing Jan. 18.

Here, then, is the most up-to-date knowledge we have about Tamiflu and what the antiviral medication can and cannot do for you.

Q. Could Tamiflu help me feel better faster?

A. Yes. That's one thing just about everyone agrees — Tamiflu shortens flu symptoms by about a day. "If I woke up in the morning with aches, coughing, fever, I'd take Tamiflu if I could get it within 24 hours," says Mark Ebell, a family physician with the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Georgia who has studied the drug's efficacy. "I'll feel better a day, maybe a day and a half, faster, and that's worth something to me. But I wouldn't take it if it were more than 24 hours after the start of my symptoms."

Q. Why is it important to take the drug soon after symptoms appear?

A. Tamiflu works by preventing infected cells from bursting, releasing flu virus that can infect nearby cells. This process has to be arrested early — most guidelines say within 48 hours of symptom onset — to make a difference. One large CDC analysis looking at pregnant women sick with the 2009 pandemic flu found that those who received antiviral treatment more than four days after falling ill were six times more likely to end up in intensive care than those who got the drug within two days.

Next page: Does Tamiflu prevent you from dying of the flu? »

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