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Flu Emergency: When to Call a Doctor

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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 this illness can lead to serious complications that require emergency care.

Every year more than 200,000 people in the U.S. wind up in the hospital because of the flu. Tens of thousands die. Infants, the elderly, and people with certain diseases or weakened immune systems are the most at risk. But a flu emergency can happen to anyone. So 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 it when you inhale the germ or pick it up on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Symptoms usually show up 1 to 4 days later.

The flu can be hard to tell from a cold. But it usually comes on faster and is more severe. The so-called "stomach flu" isn't the same as influenza. The flu very rarely causes tummy trouble in adults.

Normal flu symptoms include:

Flu Treatments

Although flu vaccines can prevent certain strains, there's not much you can do after you get sick. If you take them within 48 hours after symptoms start, drugs like oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), and zanamivir (Relenza) may ease some symptoms. You can also:

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

Antibiotics don’t treat the flu. They only work against bacteria, and the flu is caused by a virus. You might need antibiotics if you get a secondary infection in your ear, sinuses, or lungs (like pneumonia or bronchitis).

Who's at Risk?

Usually, you don't need to see the doctor if you get the flu. Your body will fight off the virus on its own if you get enough rest. But sometimes you -- or a family member -- may have serious problems as a result of the flu. Those more likely to get them include:

  • Newborns and children up to age 5 (especially kids under age 2)
  • People over 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live in long-term care facilities
  • Caregivers
  • People with chronic diseases like asthma, neuromuscular disease, heart problems, or lung disease
  • People with a weakened immune system, either from a disease or its treatment
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