The dispensation of ivermectin, a prescription medication used to treat infections caused by parasites, has increased in retail pharmacies and veterinary shops alike — not as a treatment for parasites, but as individuals attempt to treat or prevent COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control Health Alert Network, the medication went from about 3,600 prescriptions per week pre-pandemic to 88,000 prescriptions in the week ending August 13, 2021. Calls to poison control centers about the drug have also spiked, a “five-fold increase from the baseline,” according to medical toxicologist Dr. Michael Moss, medical director of the Utah Poison Control Center.
“Ivermectin is a medication that is used in humans as well as animals for treatment of parasitic infections, so people are acquiring the veterinary product because it doesn’t require a prescription,” said Moss.
Ivermectin is not approved by FDA for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19, and the National Institutes of Health says there is “currently insufficient data to recommend ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19.” Data from the CDC shows adverse effects associated with ivermectin misuse and overdose are increasing, “as shown by a rise in calls to poison control centers reporting overdoses and more people experiencing adverse effects.”
Moss said he believes the interest in using ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment came from very early research testing if the drug would stop the virus from infecting cells in a laboratory, and individuals “latched on to that early in the pandemic,” which further spread through social media.
“In some cases, people have ingested ivermectin-containing products purchased without a prescription, including topical formulations and veterinary products,” the CDC stated in a news release.
Ivermectin overdose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased consciousness, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, comas and even death. The medication also may increase “the effects of other drugs that cause central nervous system depression such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates.”
“The side effects that can happen from ivermectin, fortunately, are not terribly serious, but most common being upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, those sorts of things. In more serious cases, it’s caused some drowsiness,” Moss said. But he warns that patients who were hospitalized because they were drowsy from taking ivermectin took days to recover.
The Utah Poison Control Center has seen “some small increase” in ivermectin calls, Moss said.
No patients that have called Utah Poison Control have required admission to the hospital, Moss said, although one case required an individual to be seen at the emergency room but they were able to go home.
“We know that ivermectin can be used safely in humans at doses that are appropriate for humans — the trouble with the veterinary products is, these are often supplying enough to treat an animal that weighs over 1,000 pounds,” Moss said. “So the amount in there can be way more than you would ever get from a prescription of taking a pill, so patients are in danger of overdosing.”
Although there are no medications that have been FDA approved for either prevention or treatment of COVD-19, Moss said, individuals can treat their symptoms — like taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat fevers and following the directions on the package. People who have worsening shortness of breath or increased illness should consult with their physician or go to the emergency room.
Moss recommends people only take ivermectin for COVID-19 if they are participating in a clinical trial or it is prescribed but adds there is no reason to request a prescription of ivermectin since there is no research supporting ivermectin use for COVID-19 treatment in humans.
“We always encourage anyone to call the Utah Poison Control Center at any time, 24/7; we’re available, we’re here right here in Utah, you can talk to a live person — at any point if you have questions about a medication, our phone number is 1-800-222-1222,” Moss said. “The most important things people can do to prevent COVID-19, of course, would be one: to get the vaccine, and then two: to follow the same precautions that our local authorities and CDC have been recommending, as far as mask-wearing and other hygiene procedures.”