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Flu Emergency: When to Call a Doctor

You may think of the flu as pretty harmless. Most of the time, it is. People typically recover after about a week or two without any lasting problems. But sometimes, the flu can lead to serious complications requiring emergency care.

The CDC estimates that 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized because of the flu every year. Thirty-six thousand die. Infants, the elderly, and people with certain diseases or weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable. But a flu emergency can happen to anyone. Since the flu can be dangerous, it's important to know the signs of trouble.

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Normal Flu Symptoms

Different strains of the influenza virus cause the flu. You get the flu by either inhaling the germ or picking it up on your hands and then touching your eyes or mouth. Symptoms usually appear one to four days later.

The flu is sometimes hard to tell apart from a cold. But the flu usually comes on faster and is more severe. Also, keep in mind that a so-called "stomach flu" is not the same as influenza. The flu very rarely causes stomach or intestinal problems in adults.

Normal flu symptoms include:

  • High fever 
  • Headache
  • Tiredness (can be extreme)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches

Flu Treatments

Although flu vaccines can prevent certain strains of the flu, there's not much you can do after you get the flu. If taken within 48 hours of flu symptoms, drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza may lessen some of the symptoms. To ease flu symptoms, you can also:

  • Take over-the-counter painkillers like Advil, Motrin, and Tylenol to relieve body aches and headache and control fever.
  • Take over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants to help with congestion.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.

Antibiotics will not help treat the flu. Antibiotics only work against bacteria. A virus - not a bacterium -- causes the flu. However, if you develop a secondary infection, or flu-related complication such as ear infections, sinusitis, or bronchitis, antibiotics may be needed.

Who's at Risk for a Flu Emergency?

Usually, you don't need to see the doctor if you get the flu. Your body will fight off the virus on its own with rest. But sometimes you -- or a family member -- may develop serious complications as a result of the flu. Those at increased risk of flu-related complications include: 

  • Newborns and children up to age 5 (especially children under age 2)
  • People over 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live in long-term care facilities
  • Caregivers of children or the ill
  • People with chronic diseases such as asthma, neuromuscular disease, heart problems, or lung disease
  • People who have depressed immune systems, either from disease or its treatment


Serious Complications Associated With the Flu

Serious flu-related complications include:

  • Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications of the flu. Untreated, it can be life threatening.
  • Muscle inflammation (myositis)
  • Central nervous system disease
  • Heart problems such as heart attacks, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), and inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis)
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes


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