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When to contact your doctor about flu symptoms

October 28, 2009

Question:

When you have the flu, at what point should you consider seeing a doctor?

Answer:

Most adults contact their doctors when they feel really sick. But that general advice doesn't work very well for the flu. Why is that?

A lot of people think the flu is like the common cold, a minor and temporary illness. It's not. Just getting the flu makes anyone feel really sick for a few days. You feel physically weak, you have no energy, you ache all over, you have a fever. But if you rest and drink plenty of fluids, it usually will pass. That's why, even though you feel really sick, you usually don't need to contact your doctor.

However, sometimes the flu virus overwhelms the body's defenses, and a person develops pneumonia. This happens more often to people who have a chronic illness, but it also can happen to healthy adults. In fact, about 20,000 to 40,000 people die of the flu each year in the United States — more than die of chronic kidney failure or chronic liver failure.

An adult should call the doctor if he or she:

  • Starts to feel unusually short of breath;

  • Starts to cough up yellow, green or brown sputum;

  • Starts to get a sharp pain in the chest every time he or she takes in a deep breath;

  • Gets a bad earache;

  • Has a fever above 103 degrees Fahrenheit;

  • Starts to feel lightheaded, or actually passes out;

  • Has a serious chronic disease like heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease or diabetes, or has medical conditions or takes medicines that suppress the immune system.

Just getting the flu doesn't mean you should call the doctor, but watch out for these danger signs. They definitely are a good reason to speak with your doctor.

— Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter

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As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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