In what appears to be the worst flu epidemic in years, prescriptions for Tamiflu (oseltamivir) are soaring – outpacing last year’s prescriptions by a factor of 10 or even 14 times higher this year in some states, with a nationwide rate that is more than 5 times higher than last year.
According to a GoodRx analysis of a nationally representative sample of US prescriptions, pharmacy fills for Tamiflu, the most popular medication to treat the flu, are increasing, with some notable geographic variations. In Arizona, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, prescriptions are up over 10-fold from last year, and other parts of the south and midwest are likewise seeing an exceptionally high prescription volume.
Though there is a vaccine available for the flu, Tamiflu is often prescribed if symptoms start to appear, which helps explain the rapid surge in prescriptions this year. If taken within the first 28 hours of getting the flu, Tamiflu can work to block the actions of influenza in your body, and shorten the duration of the virus. You can also take Tamiflu for up to six weeks to prevent you from getting the flu.
Despite the surge of prescriptions, there are some doubts about whether Tamiflu is even effective for treatment or prevention – more on that below.
The national pattern closely resembles data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows these same states are some of the hardest hit by flu so far this year.
According to CDC data, cases of the flu reached high levels in southern states like Texas and Louisiana in the days before Christmas and then spread through the Midwest and the entire United States.
At the present moment, all states except for Maine, Montana, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Hawaii, Alaska, and the District of Columbia are seeing high rates of flu activity. Flu activity has been consistently high over the past 9 weeks and doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. Flu season can last anywhere between 16 and 20 weeks, so experts predict there is still more to come.
To see an interactive view of the flu around this country this year, visit The CDC FluView Map here.
On a national basis, prescriptions for Tamiflu are up more than 5 times last year’s rate. This is a stunning illustration of how bad the flu is – and how much worse it may still get.
A shortage in Tamiflu
The high volume of Tamiflu prescriptions at this point in the season has resulted in a shortage of the medication. While the FDA has not yet confirmed this shortage, doctors and pharmacists in both urban and rural areas are reporting difficulty in accessing Tamiflu for their patients.
Those unable to access Tamiflu this year do have other options. Besides Tamiflu, there are two other influenza medications: Relenza and Rapivab. Both are considered just as effective as Tamiflu and may be easier to access this year. For more information on these medications, see our post here.
Over the counter medications can also help ease symptoms. Read here for more details on over the counter flu medications.
Is it effective?
Tamiflu is sometimes treated as a cure for all cases of the flu, but recent studies call this reputation into question. According to a study-of-studies, or meta-analysis, performed by Cochrane Research of 46 studies involving more than 24,000 people, Tamiflu may provide a much smaller benefit than expected. At best, the analysis found that Tamiflu may only help patients recover one day faster, and may not reduce the number of flu-related complications, like pneumonia. Additionally, it may only reduce the risk of getting sick by 55%. At over $50 per prescription for generic oseltamivir, for some, the benefits may not outweigh the cost.
While these findings don’t negate the use of Tamiflu, they may indicate that it is less protective than we had previously thought.
Tamiflu side effects
There has been recent concern about Tamiflu’s side effects, especially in younger children. Recently, a 6-year-old girl reportedly attempted to jump out of her bedroom window during a hallucination while taking Tamiflu. The FDA has warned of similar side effects previously, noting that:
“Children and teenagers with the flu may be at a higher risk for seizures, confusion, or abnormal behavior early during their illness. These serious side effects may happen shortly after beginning Tamiflu of may happen in people when the flu is not treated. These serious side effects are not common but may result in accidental injury to the patient. People who take Tamiflu should be watched for sins of unusual behavior and a healthcare provider should be contacted right away if the patient shows any unusual behavior while taking Tamiflu.”
More common side effects include nausea, vomiting, headache, and pain. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you or a loved one experience any of these side effects for a prolonged period of time.
Why is the flu so bad this year?
This year’s flu is different from past years. The reason? Around 80% of flu cases this year involved H3N2, a strain of the influenza A virus that is more dangerous and results in more complications. H3N2 is generally also harder to prevent with the flu vaccine, and this seems to be true this year. Experts say that this year’s flu vaccine may be only 10% effective.
How can you protect yourself?
- You can still get your flu vaccine. Even though the flu shot may only 10% effective against this year’s flu, you may still want to consider getting it. Even if you get sick, a flu vaccine can also help ease the severity and duration of the virus.
- Visit your doctor immediately. When true flu symptoms hit, go to the doctor. The sooner you visit, the sooner you can get your prescription for an antiviral medication.
- Wash your hands. This may go without saying, but washing your hands is your best weapon against the flu virus.
- Exercising may help. While heavy exercise may predispose you to the flu, a moderate amount may be protective.
Methodology: Data represents a change in prescriptions for Tamiflu (and generic versions of Oseltamivir) from this season (Dec. 1, 2017, through Feb 11, 2018) compared to last season (Dec. 1, 2016, through Feb 11, 2017). Prescription volume based on a statistically significant sample of fills at US pharmacies. Data comes from several sources, including pharmacies and insurers, and provides a representative sample of nationwide US prescription drug volume.