Published on 13 January 2015
With the flu so widespread across the country, patients are being prescribed Tamiflu and Relenza in hopes of both shortening their flu symptoms and stopping the spread of the virus. These antiviral medications are the only two approved to both prevent and treat the flu. As a result, these medications are under a lot of scrutiny and debate over their effectiveness.
I believe Tamiflu and Relenza are beneficial to the right patients. The key is not overusing them, but reserving them for high-risk patients like the elderly and those with chronic diseases, such as heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Even for those populations, the medicine is not going to be a magic pill. It’s going to reduce symptoms by about a day, but more importantly it could also prevent the infection from turning into a more severe case of the flu.
We know that the longer you have the flu, or the more severe case you have, the more likely you are to develop a secondary infection like bacterial pneumonia, particularly staphylococcal pneumonia. That’s a form of pneumonia that you wouldn’t normally get in everyday life. If we can prevent those types of infections then it’s a real benefit.
However, we do have to be careful about our use of antiviral medication, just as we do with antibiotics. Viruses can build up a resistance, making the medication less effective. It’s important to know the medicine does not kill the virus. It stops the virus’ ability to spread to other cells. The flu, like any virus, needs your body’s cells to make more of itself. It takes over the cell’s machinery and then spreads to healthy cells.
Tamiflu and Relenza work by stopping the final step where an infected cell releases more virus particles. The medication doesn’t kill anything. It does give your body’s own immune system time to catch up and do its work. Because of this, I believe the medication is good for high-risk patients whose immune systems are not working in peak condition.
About the author: Ryan Moenster, Pharm.D., BCPS-ID, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He is one of only a few infectious disease pharmacists in the country. In addition to his teaching duties, he practices at a local hospital where he’s on the front lines of fighting potentially deadly bacteria and viruses.