Flu - when to see the doctor

Written by: 
Michelle Roberts, medical writer

Most healthy people recover from fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. without complications and do not need to see a doctor.

Serious illness from fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. is more likely in particular high-risk groups of people, including those aged 65 or older, pregnant women, people with certain chronicA disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. medical conditions and young children. 

It is important that people in these groups seek medical advice early to get prompt treatment if necessary, and that they are aware of warning signs that suggest urgent medical attention may be needed. 

Certain symptoms could suggest another illness such as the common cold, pharyngitis, bronchitis or meningitis, rather than fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system.. See What else might it be?

Complications of flu

The most common complicationA condition that is linked to, or is a consequence of, another disease or procedure. is a secondary bacterial chest infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites., which develops in addition to the viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites.. Antibiotics will usually clear a bacterial infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites., but it can develop into pneumoniaInflammation of one or both lungs., which may be life-threatening, particularly in frail or elderly people.
Rarely, some people can develop encephalitisInflammation of the brain. – where the brain tissue becomes inflamed, causing headache, a stiff neck, fever, confusion and convulsions or paralysis. This is a medical emergency requiring urgent treatment. 

Other complications include:

  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Dehydration
  • Worsening of chronicA disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart failureFailure of the heart to pump adequately..

Young children may also have convulsions due to the fever, or may develop croup.

Croup causes difficulty breathing and a barking cough, due to swelling of the larynxOrgan of the body that produces the sounds of the voice, through which air from the mouth cavity (pharynx) passes to and from the lungs. and tracheaThe windpipe. in the throat. If the swelling is severe, it can obstruct breathing. If this happens, your child will need to go to hospital for emergency treatment.

High-risk groups

It is important to seek medical advice at the first sign of fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. if: 

  • You have chronicA disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. heart or lung disease
  • You have diabetes
  • You have a kidney problem
  • You have a weakened immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection.
  • You are pregnant
  • Your child has a chronicA disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. medical condition such as rheumatoid arthritisInflammation of one or more joints of the body., asthma or heart problems.

Warning signs

In children and babies, medical treatment may be needed urgently if there are any of the following symptoms:

  • Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Bluish skin colour
  • The child is not drinking sufficient fluids
  • The child is not passing urine
  • The child is not able to wake up or interact
  • Convulsions
  • The child is so irritable that he or she does not want to be held
  • Fever with a rash
  • Flu symptoms that persist for more than five days without improvement
  • Flu symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Coughing up bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. or bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid.-stained sputum.

In adults, medical treatment may be needed urgently if there are any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting.

What else might it be?

Other illnesses may have similar symptoms to ‘fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system.. These include [1]:

  • The common cold
  • Streptococcal infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. of the pharynx (a ‘strep throat’)
  • Bacterial infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. causing pneumoniaInflammation of one or both lungs. or bronchitis
  • Meningitis
  • Infectious mononucleosis (‘glandular ever’)

It is especially important not to miss a serious illness such as meningitis. [1] Symptoms that suggest meningitis rather than fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. include:

  • A rash - particularly dark red spots that do not fade when pressed with a glass
  • A headache that becomes worse and worse
  • A stiff neck
  • A marked dislike of bright lights.

If any of these symptoms are present, urgent medical evaluation is required.

FOR MORE DETAILED INFORMATION, SEE OUR FLU MINI-SITE

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