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.