Can oseltamivir (Tamiflu) prevent complications of the flu?

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The flu can lead to serious complications like in certain groups of people. Medications like oseltamivir (trade name: Tamiflu) mainly aim to prevent things from turning serious. But research has only shown that taking oseltamivir might make general flu symptoms go away a bit sooner.

Influenza or ‘the flu’ is a viral of the upper respiratory tract (a disease of the airways). It can cause a wide range of symptoms, including fever, chills, muscle ache, severe tiredness and , headache, sore throat, a cough and a blocked nose.

Most people who come down with the flu get better within a week. But they may have a cough and feel unwell for about one to two weeks after that.

Children, pregnant women, older people and people with chronic medical conditions are at greater risk of getting very ill if they have the flu. Complications such as pneumonia are then more common, and they can also become fatal. But people who are otherwise healthy are very unlikely to die of the flu.

Effect and use of oseltamivir (Tamiflu)

Just like with most common colds, don't help if someone has the flu. That's because they are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. But there are drugs that prevent viruses from spreading in the body. They are called antivirals, and oseltamivir is one of them. It is available in Germany under the trade name Tamiflu, and is prescription-only.

Oseltamivir belongs to a group of drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors. These drugs aim to block a protein called neuraminidase. Flu viruses need neuraminidase in order to spread in the body. It is hoped that using these medications will stop people becoming very ill and having serious complications.

Oseltamivir needs to be taken within 48 hours after the flu symptoms start. It will not have any effect on the course of the flu if you take it later than that.

Research on treatment

Researchers at the (an international research network) looked at the results of a total of 20 studies in which almost 10,000 children and adults took part.

The researchers didn't find any that oseltamivir would be able to prevent serious cases and complications in the event of a flu epidemic. They only found proof that Tamiflu can shorten the duration of flu symptoms a little:

  • Without Tamiflu, symptoms lasted 7 days on average in otherwise healthy children and adults.
  • With Tamiflu, the duration of symptoms was shortened by a number of hours (from 7 to 6.3 days) in adults, and by about one day in children.

But the medication had no effect in children with . It is unclear whether people who have the flu are less contagious after taking Tamiflu.

A recent analysis of both older and newer studies on oseltamivir suggests that treatment with oseltamivir leads to fewer complications, such as middle ear .

The most common side effects of oseltamivir are vomiting and nausea. 4 out of 100 people in the studies had these side effects.

Research on prevention

Some studies looked into whether taking oseltamivir can protect people from the flu. This is an important question for relatives and other people who have temporary but intensive contact with infected people. The studies showed that the drug has a slight protective effect: About 3 out of 100 participants who took oseltamivir as a preventive measure were protected from flu symptoms, but not from .

Side effects were common in these studies too, though: About 2 out of 100 people had headaches after taking oseltamivir, and 3 out of 100 experienced nausea. The studies also suggest that oseltamivir can – in rare cases – cause kidney problems and psychiatric problems such as hallucinations, or confusion. The U.S. drug agency FDA therefore recommends that people look out for unusual changes in behavior and seek medical advice if necessary.

Ebell MH, Call M, Shinholser J. Effectiveness of oseltamivir in adults: a meta-analysis of published and unpublished clinical trials. Fam Pract 2013; 30(2): 125-133.

Jefferson T, Del Mar CB, Dooley L et al. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2020; (11): CD006207.

Jefferson T, Jones MA, Doshi P et al. Neuraminidase inhibitors for preventing and treating influenza in adults and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (4): CD008965.

Tejada S, Jansson M, Solé-Lleonart C et al. Neuraminidase inhibitors are effective and safe in reducing influenza complications: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur J Intern Med 2021; 86: 54-65.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on November 22, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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