Authored by Revere Health

I Think I Have the Flu: When Should I See a Doctor?

February 22, 2017 | Family Medicine

The flu, or influenza, can affect people of all ages and tends to be more common during cold, winter months. Many cases of flu are mild and don’t require a doctor’s visit, but some symptoms can become serious enough that you’ll need medical attention.

Here are the basic causes and symptoms of influenza and how to recognize when it’s time to see your doctor.

Flu Causes

While the flu is often described as similar to the common cold, the causes of a cold and the flu are very different. There are over 100 kinds of viruses that can cause the common cold, but the flu is caused by only three: influenza type A, B, and C.

  • Type A: Found in several types of animals, from ducks and chickens to horses and seals, type A contributes to most major flu outbreaks.
  • Type B: The type B virus is only found in humans. This type also contributes to major outbreaks.
  • Type C: Type C viruses usually causing minor symptoms, but unlike types A and B, immunizations do not exist for type C.

The flu is very contagious and can be spread through basic contact or through the air. It often enters your body through the nose, eyes, and mouth. You can spread the flu for up to seven days after you start seeing symptoms, although young children can be contagious for even longer.

The flu is more common in winter, mostly because the virus can live longer and we spend more time indoors near other people. Your best prevention method against the flu is to wash your hands and keep yourself clean. Doctors also recommend getting a flu shot every year.

Basic Symptoms

Some of the basic signs and symptoms that indicate you might be coming down with the flu include:

  • Cough and sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (not in all cases)
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Tiredness
  • Chills

In most cases, these symptoms are mild and don’t necessarily warrant medical attention. Rest, staying hydrated, and over-the-counter medications or home remedies can help ease symptoms, but in other cases, symptoms can get severe and will require the help of your doctor.

When to See a Doctor

There are a number of people who should be more careful if they notice any signs of flu symptoms. These are people at high risk of complications like pneumonia and sinus infections from the flu, and they should consider seeing a doctor even if they only have minor symptoms. If you’re part of any of these groups, you might need to take extra precautions:

  • Age 65 or older
  • Age 5 or under, especially age 2 or under
  • Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth
  • People with chronic medical conditions: asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, emphysema, neuromuscular disease, and others
  • Under 19 years old and receiving long term aspirin therapy
  • Weak immune system
  • Native Americans or Alaska Native
  • People living in long term care facilities
  • Obesity: Body mass index (BMI) over 40

For all people, there are also a few situations where you should consider seeing your doctor. These include:

  • Fever that won’t go away (this may mean you have an infection)
  • Trouble breathing or heavy chest pain (this may signal pneumonia or heart disease)
  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Persistent cough for over two weeks
  • Congestion and headache despite cold medicine
  • Inability to keep food or liquid down, frequent vomiting

Proper treatment of the flu is important, especially if you are at higher risk. Treating the flu at the right time can also decrease your risk of complications like pneumonia. If you or a loved one have severe flu symptoms or are in a high-risk group, speak to your doctor.

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“What Causes the Flu?” WebMD.

“Flu symptoms: Should I see my doctor?” The Mayo Clinic.

“When Should I See a Doctor for a Cold or Flu?” WebMD.

The Live Better Team


The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.