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.
When Gina Gallo, a school librarian in Lacombe, La., gets sick, she can take
care of herself. She gets her own medicine, makes her own food, and "deals with
it," as she puts it. But when her fiancé gets a cold, she says he has "a
complete system breakdown."
"The world stops and the whining is incessant," she says. "I am expected to
bring him food, take care of him, and generally treat him like the baby that he
Gallo's fiancé declined to talk with WebMD for this story. Their Mars-Venus
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:
Tiredness (can be extreme)
Runny or stuffy nose
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.
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
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