What Is Ivermectin Used for and Why Are People Taking the Drug for COVID-19?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has raised concerns over ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug some people in the U.S. were reported to have used for COVID-19 treatment, including podcast host Joe Rogan this week.

Ivermectin is a medication approved by the FDA to treat people with intestinal strongyloidiasis and onchocerciasis, which are two conditions caused by parasitic worms, according to the FDA website.

In animals, it has been FDA-approved to be used for preventing heartworm disease in some small animal species and for the treatment of certain parasites in different animal species.

Although it has not been approved by the FDA for use as treatment for COVID-19, the federal body has received multiple reports of people who have been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.

What Is Ivermectin?

Ivermectin is an FDA-approved antiparasitic drug used to treat certain tropical diseases. It is not approved by the FDA for the treatment of any viral infection.

Ivermectin is used to treat strongyloidiasis. Also known as threadworm, strongyloidiasis is an infection that sees a type of roundworm enter the body through the skin, move through airways and live in the intestines, explains MedlinePlus, the online health information resource service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Ivermectin is also used to treat onchocerciasis (river blindness), which is an infection involving a type of roundworm that may cause a rash, bumps under the skin as well as vision problems including vision loss or blindness, according to MedlinePlus.

The drug is also sometimes used to treat certain other roundworm infections, head or pubic lice infestation and scabies, which is a skin condition caused by infestation with small mites that live under the skin, MedlinePlus says.

Ivermectin Side Effects

Those who take ivermectin may experience some of the following side effects, as outlined by MedlinePlus:

  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain or bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
  • Chest discomfort

Those who take ivermectin to treat onchocerciasis, may experience the following additional side effects, as outlined by MedlinePlus:

  • Swelling of the eyes, face, arms, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Painful and swollen glands of the neck, armpit or groin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Eye pain, redness, or tearing
  • Swelling of the eye or eyelids
  • Abnormal sensation in the eyes
A micrograph of a strongyloides stercoralis parasite.
A micrograph showing a strongyloides stercoralis parasite embedded in the intestinal mucosa, captured in 1972. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Why Are People Taking Ivermectin?

The FDA is concerned about the health of those who may self-medicate with ivermectin drugs intended for animals, assuming they can be a substitute for ivermectin intended for humans, MedlinePlus says.

There has been a rise in interest for ivermectin as a potential treatment for COVID-19 patients following a research article that described the effect of ivermectin on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a lab setting.

MedlinePlus explains the Antiviral Research paper said ivermectin inhibits the replication of SARS-CoV-2 in vitro.

The research paper read: "We report here that Ivermectin, an FDA-approved anti-parasitic previously shown to have broad-spectrum anti-viral activity in vitro, is an inhibitor of the causative virus (SARS-CoV-2)...ivermectin therefore warrants further investigation for possible benefits in humans."

Did Joe Rogan Take Ivermectin for Covid-19?

In a video post on Instagram shared on Wednesday, Joe Rogan, host of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Spotify, revealed he "got COVID-19." He said that he had been self-medicating by "throwing the kitchen sink" at his infection.

Among the drugs he used to treat his bout of COVID-19 was ivermectin, he revealed in the Instagram post.

Rogan said in the Instagram video: "I got back from the road Saturday night feeling very weary.

"I had a headache, and I just felt just run down. Just to be cautious, I separated from my family, slept in a different part of the house and throughout the night I got fevers and sweats and I knew what was going on.

"We immediately threw the kitchen sink at it: all kinds of meds. Monoclonal antibodies, ivermectin, Z-pack, prednisone—everything," Rogan said in the video.

Rogan had previously suggested that young, healthy people did not need to get the COVID vaccine.

What FDA, CDC and NIH Say About Ivermectin

The FDA has not reviewed data to support the use of ivermectin for treating COVID-19 patients or to prevent COVID-19 but "some initial research is underway," according to the FDA website.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also warns: "Be aware that currently, ivermectin has not been proven as a way to prevent or treat COVID-19."

The NIH has also determined there is not enough data to recommend ivermectin as a treatment of COVID-19.

The NIH website says: "There is insufficient evidence for the COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel (the Panel) to recommend either for or against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19.

"Results from adequately powered, well-designed, and well-conducted clinical trials are needed to provide more specific, evidence-based guidance on the role of ivermectin in the treatment of COVID-19," the NIH says.

The FDA explained that given the rising number of COVID-19 deaths, it's not surprising that some may be looking at "unconventional treatments" for COVID-19 that have not been approved or authorized by the FDA.

"Though this is understandable, please beware," the FDA warned. "Taking a drug for an unapproved use can be very dangerous. This is true of ivermectin, too.

"There's a lot of misinformation around, and you may have heard that it's okay to take large doses of ivermectin. That is wrong," the FDA said. "Even the levels of ivermectin for approved uses can interact with other medications, like blood-thinners."

It is also possible to overdose on ivermectin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension (low blood pressure), allergic reactions (itching and hives), dizziness, ataxia (problems with balance), seizures, coma and even death, the FDA warns.

A box holding a bottle of ivermectin.
A health worker in Colombia holding a box containing a bottle of ivermectin in July 2020. LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images