If you get the flu, you'll likely experience a high fever, sore throat, cough, and lots of aches and pains. You might feel like you don’t need to see a doctor, and opt to treat yourself with extra rest and fluids. But in certain cases, seeing a doctor will help you get better faster and prevent major complications.
Since 2010 in the United States, the flu has resulted in 140,000 to 960,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 to 79,000 deaths each year. During the 2017-2018 season, there were at least 185 flu-associated deaths in children, and roughly 80 percent of these deaths occurred in children who hadn’t received a flu vaccination.
Even though most people recover in a week or two at home, the flu shouldn’t be taken lightly. Being aware of when you should see a doctor is important.
Symptoms of the flu are similar to the common cold, but tend to come on more rapidly and are much more severe.
The most common symptoms of the flu include:
- fever above 100°F (38°C)
- sore throat
- dry or wet cough
- muscle aches
- runny or stuffy nose
You should go to the emergency room if you have any of these symptoms:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- severe or persistent vomiting
- sudden dizziness
- severe neck stiffness
- loss of consciousness
Some people are at a higher risk of experiencing dangerous flu-related complications, like pneumonia or bronchitis.
You’re considered high risk and should see a doctor at the first signs of the flu if:
- you are age 65 or older
- you have a chronic medical condition (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease)
- you have a compromised immune system
- you are pregnant or up to two weeks’ postpartum
- you’re a nursing home resident
If you fit into one of these categories, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. These medications work best when they’re taken within the first 48 hours after symptoms start. The earlier you can see a doctor, the better.
If you’re not considered high risk and you’re not having severe symptoms, you can likely skip a trip to the doctor and ride out the flu with rest and fluids.
But there are a few other reasons you should plan a doctor’s visit. These include:
- your fever gets better, then suddenly worsens
- your symptoms don’t improve within two weeks
- you can’t get rid of your cough or your cough begins producing thick mucus
- pain is concentrated in a single area (like your ear, chest, or sinuses)
Most people recover from the flu within a week. But if you start to get better and then rapidly deteriorate and your fever spikes again, this could mean you have a flu complication. The main complications of the flu are infections of the sinuses or lungs (pneumonia).
If you get sick with the flu and are at high risk of flu complications or you’re concerned about your illness, you can always call your doctor’s office for advice and to find out if they think you should come in.
If you decide to head to the doctor’s office or emergency room, wear a facemask if you have one. Wash your hands and cover your coughs and sneezes to avoid spreading the virus to others.
Getting a flu vaccine can greatly lower your chances of getting the flu. In the 2016–2017 flu season, the flu vaccine helped prevent an estimated 5.3 million flu-related illnesses, 2.6 million medical visits, and 85,000 hospitalizations in the United States.