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When is the Flu an Emergency?

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Flu season is upon us, and that means getting a flu shot should be at the top of your to-do list. Influenza is a highly contagious illness that can occur in children or adults of any age.

Have you ever wondered whether a nasty bout of the flu warrants a trip to the emergency room? You’re not alone. Every flu season, thousands of people flood ERs seeking treatment for their flu symptoms. But most of the time, an ER visit isn’t necessary.

From symptoms and when to visit the doctor to when you should go to the ER for the flu, we asked Zoheb Osman, DO, to help break it down for you.

Symptoms of the Flu

In general, you can assume you have influenza — or the flu — and not a garden-variety cold if your symptoms are severe and accompanied by a fever. Fevers typically range from 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Flu symptoms may include:

  • Chills
  • Nonproductive Cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain/body aches
  • Sore throat

Among vaccinated individuals, clinical manifestations may be similar but less severe. Flu symptoms can start abruptly. Treating symptoms with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen for pain or fevers, getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids provide enough relief for most people with the flu.

When to Go to the Doctor for Flu

Even if you’re taking over-the-counter medicines around the clock, getting plenty of rest and hydrating, you can still feel awful with the flu — so awful you can’t get out of bed for a day or two. While that may concern you, it’s still best to call your doctor before heading to the emergency room for the flu.

Adults with uncomplicated influenza typically have a fever and respiratory symptoms for about three days, after which time most show signs of improvement.

However, if your symptoms improve for a day or two and return with a fever, you should call your doctor. If you have children under the age of 5, older family members older than 65, or relatives with compromised immune systems — including those with chronic health conditions — you should ask your doctor for advice. These individuals are more likely to suffer complications from the flu, so getting treatment early can help avoid more serious illness. Every year, flu complications are responsible for more than 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States.

When to Go to the ER for the Flu

There are times when you should go to the hospital for the flu, such as when you or a loved one experiences severe dehydration, which can show up as:

  • Confusion
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Limited appetite
  • Extreme thirst
  • Severe or consistent vomiting

Other signs of a flu-related emergency include severe chest or abdominal pain, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

Warning signs of flu complications are slightly different for children and infants. If you have a child with any of the following symptoms with the flu, you should take them to the ER:

  • A bluish color to the skin
  • A severe headache
  • A stiff neck
  • An inability to take in fluids
  • Trouble urinating

Also, if you have an infant, watch out for the following red flags:

  • A fever over 100.3 (in a baby under 3 months old)
  • An absence of tears while crying
  • Fewer wet diapers than normal
  • Inability to eat
  • Inconsolable crying or irritability

About Dr. Osman

UChicago Medicine AdventHealth Medical Group has more than 70 primary care providers at 16 clinics throughout the western suburbs. Each is focused on your whole-person health.

Dr. Osman is a board-certified Family Medicine physician practicing at 911 North Elm Street, Suite 301 in Hinsdale. He believes in utilizing the latest, most effective and research-backed medical treatments coupled with a healthy lifestyle that includes restful sleep, a well-balanced diet and exercise.

Call 630-856-8650 for more information or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Osman today.

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