Tamiflu – why and when it’s needed for the flu


Fever. Coughs. Aches. With this year’s serious flu outbreak, these symptoms strike fear into parents, sending them scrambling to pediatricians’ offices. Adults with similar symptoms are filling the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices everywhere.

Flu shots can help prevent illness or lessen the effects of the virus, but children and adults still can and do die from the flu.

Tamiflu, an antiviral medication, can help some patients feel better. But, the drug isn’t for everyone.

“In most cases, Tamiflu should not be used to prevent the flu. It does not act as a booster for the flu shot.  We prefer to reserve the medicine for people who actually have the flu,” Beaumont infectious disease physician Paul Chittick, M.D., explains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has specific recommendations about which patients are at risk for serious illness and who should receive Tamiflu.

“Everything we do in medicine should weigh risks/benefits and pros/cons. In an individual patient, if there's no benefit to a medication, and only risk, we should not prescribe it. On a larger scale, overuse of antivirals in unnecessary circumstances promotes development of resistance, just like we see with antibiotics,” Dr. Chittick adds.

Richard Weiermiller, M.D., Beaumont pediatrician, says more and more parents are asking him to prescribe Tamiflu for their children. But, he refuses unless the child actually has the flu.

“I wish parents understood Tamiflu isn’t always the answer. If a child does not meet the CDC’s criteria for the drug, I won’t prescribe it. Some doctors disagree and will prescribe Tamiflu if parents pressure them,” Dr. Weiermiller details. “Parents have good intentions. They are worried about their children, but giving them a medicine that won’t help them could do more harm than good.”

Some areas of the country have experienced shortages of Tamiflu, which makes it tougher for people who actually have the flu to get the drug.

“Tamiflu is most useful for patients two or three days after symptoms begin. However, doctors can prescribe it outside that window if a patient has an impaired immune system (cancer, organ transplant, HIV), is pregnant, is ill enough to require hospitalization, or has severe underlying lung disease,” Dr. Chittick says.

According to the CDC, flu symptoms include some or all of the following:

  • fever and/or chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue (tiredness)

The best advice physicians like Drs. Chittick and Weiermiller have to offer is: stay home if you’re feeling sick. While at home, they suggest drinking lots of fluids, washing your hands regularly and disinfecting surfaces and objects in your home that might have be contaminated with the virus. Also, get plenty of rest and take over-the-counter pain relief medication as needed.

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