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When to Call a Doctor for the Flu

You're miserable: achy, feverish, and exhausted. Your head is pounding, and you're nauseated. All the tell-tale signs are there; it's the flu. Before you stock up on ginger ale and jump into bed for the week, you might consider phoning a physician, too. But how soon is too soon to call?  Is it possible to wait too long?

It can be easy to gravitate to the extremes when you get sick: not calling the doctor regardless of how bad you're feeling or calling on the first day you feel ill. The best time to visit the doctor's office is somewhere in the middle, but first thing's first.

How Do You Know When You Have the Flu?
There are several types of the flu, but most strains of the virus produce similar symptoms: fever, nausea, coughing, sore throat, achiness, tiredness, chills and, sometimes in children, vomiting. Symptoms like aching, chills, fever or exhaustion, particularly—if they're severe—are more likely to be caused by the influenza virus. Vomiting and diarrhea in adults, often called the stomach flu, are actually viral gastroenteritis caused by one of many viruses, including noroviruses, rotaviruses and adenoviruses.

When you start to feel sick, take note of your specific symptoms. If your nose feels stuffy or runny, you are more likely to have a common cold. If you have mild pain or discomfort in your chest, by contrast, you probably have the flu.

Because the flu can feel like a very bad cold, it's no surprise we often have trouble telling the difference. Still, severe muscle aches or headache, lingering tiredness, and, especially, chills and fever are cues that you have the flu.

When to Seek Medical Help
As curious as you might be, it's not necessary to visit a health-care provider if you have the flu--or think you do. Certain symptoms, however, mean it's time for a visit:
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sharp chest pains, especially when breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • A 103-degree fever or higher
  • Seizures
  • Unremitting vomiting
  • Purplish or bluish tinges to the skin
You should also consult your doctor if you have a compromised immune system or chronic illness that could be impacted by the flu, such as a heart or lung condition. In addition, be aware of secondary symptoms, such as dehydration, which can be caused by vomiting and diarrhea and might require medical attention if it is prolonged or severe.
Some physicians offer a flu test that can be conducted during an office visit, but these vary in accuracy. Because symptoms alone are usually enough for a physician to determine your treatment, don't be alarmed if a physician says a flu test is unnecessary or impossible. Flu tests typically need to be administered within 48 hours of the beginning of symptoms, so a test is not always possible.

How the Flu Can Be Dangerous
Each year, tens of thousands of people die from the flu or complications from it. Certain populations are more at risk for complications, including young children, elderly people and pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also list certain medical conditions that raise the risk of complications, including asthma; lung, heart, kidney or liver diseases; blood disorders; endocrine disorders; suppressed immune systems and a BMI of 40 or higher.

But how does the flu turn from an everyday ailment into a serious illness?  Each year's flu strains are different, and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to know which strain you've contracted. A more powerful virus might more easily overtake your immune system, and one complication can lead to another.

The flu can make it harder to handle existing medical problems, but it can also cause complications such as sinus or ear infections and pneumonia. Pneumonia can be particularly dangerous, so be on the lookout for an initial improvement followed by a downturn with high fever, chest pain and increased coughing with thick green sputum.

Still, most people who have the flu recover without these complications, and there are many opportunities to protect yourself by limiting your exposure to the virus through proper handwashing techniques and awareness of flu symptoms. With these simple steps and a few clues as to whether your illness is worthy of a doctor's appointment, you're on your way to protecting yourself during cold and flu season.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Key Facts about Influenza and Flu Vaccine," www.cdc.gov, accessed on August 28, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications," www.cdc.gov, accessed on August 28, 2013.

Flu.gov, "Symptoms," www.flu.gov, accessed on August 28, 2013.
Gunder, Laura M., Dadig, Bonnie A. "Rapid Flu Testing." Clinician Reviews, Fall 2009.

Harvard Medical School, "When to Contact Your Doctor About Flu Symptoms," www.health.harvard.edu, accessed on August 28, 2013.

United States Department of Veterans Affairs, "Infection: Don't Pass it On," publichealth.va.gov, accessed on August 28, 2013.

WebMD, "Diarrhea and the Stomach Flu," www.webmd.com, accessed on August 28, 2013.
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Member Comments

Thanks Report
Want to add this:

Get a flu shot and as if you are in the age category that needs / would benefit from a pneumonia shot. Report
It is sad that us men almost have to be on our deathbed before we see a doctor and its too late for some. After my high blood sugar 2 years ago (810) I now see my doctor every three months and always want to see my numbers so I can take responsibility for them. Report
Knowledge is power. Good need-to-know information. Report
try hard not to get flu or colds. wrap myself in vicks at night, and antibacterials during day. only 1 lung can complicate those issues quickly Report
Thank you but this article needs to be updated. Report
Try very hard not to get flu. Try hard not to catch anything! Report
This article should be updated. It's 2018 and over 60 kids have died from the flu. Call the doctor as soon as you have symptoms and at least ask if you should come in. Report
Flu shots are so important. I had the flu once and it felt like I was dying and I was young. Been getting the shot every year since. Report
Well i am scared of doctors and injection. Report
With the current flu epidemic (Winter of 2014-2015), many experts are recommending that people call their physicians as soon as they have symptoms that they have actual influenza and/or significant illness and not just the sniffles. The new medications to treat influenza (such as Tamaflu) are only effective if given early in the course of the illness. Report
Wow I have had the flu quite a few times in my life and out of these symptoms:

Loss of consciousness
Sharp chest pains, especially when breathing
Difficulty breathing
Dizziness or confusion
A 103-degree fever or higher
Unremitting vomiting
Purplish or bluish tinges to the skin
the only one I had was labored breathing. However, although I have only had 1 of these symptoms if I hadn't gone to the doctor I wouldn't have known that I had severe bronchitis, double ear infection, strep throat and mono as well as many other times of sinus infections that needed antibiotic which you can only get at the doctors office.. Seriously to tell people to wait until they have that list of symptoms is ridiculous. These symptoms don't send you to the doctor they send you to the hospital because you will die soon if you don't go. Report
My roomie bullied me into going to the doctor's after i'd been down for a few days with what we thought was just the flu. After explaining to the doc what was going on, the duration, and how I'd been treating myself, he asked me why i'd even come in because I was doing all he would have recommended. he sent me home with a note stating I had a flu-like viral infection and to take it easy for a couple of days or so. Roomie was livid that he didn't actually treat me or give me anything for my symptoms. I was more miffed that i'd just coughed up almost $100 out of pocket to be told to just keep doing what I'm doing and I'll be fine. After a couple of days I started going jaundice and ended up in the ER. Turns out I had Mono. Whoopsie. Report
Thanks. Needed to see this for the winter is here. Report
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About The Author

Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and magazine journalist with experience covering health, medicine, science, business, technology and design.