How to know when the flu is an emergency

Flu season is upon us, and that means getting a flu shot should be at the top of your to-do list. Influenza is a highly contagious illness that can occur in children or adults of any age.

But have you ever wondered whether a nasty bout of the flu needs a trip to the emergency room? If you have, you're not alone. Every flu season, thousands of people flood ERs seeking treatment for their flu symptoms. But most of the time, an ER visit isn't necessary.

From symptoms and when to visit the doctor to when you should go to the ER for the flu, I'm here to help break it down for you.

Symptoms of the flu

In general, you can assume you have influenza - or the flu - and not a garden-variety cold if your symptoms are severe and accompanied by a fever. Fever usually ranges from 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Flu symptoms may include:

• chills

• nonproductive cough

• runny or stuffy nose

• fatigue

• headache

• muscle pain/body aches

• sore throat

Among vaccinated individuals, clinical manifestations may be similar but less severe. Flu symptoms can come on abruptly. Treating them with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen for pain or fevers, getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids provide relief for most people with the flu.

When to go to the doctor

Even if you're taking around-the-clock over-the-counter medicines, getting plenty of rest and hydrating, you may still feel awful with the flu - so awful you can't get out of bed for a day or two. While that may concern you, it's still best to call your doctor before heading to the emergency room.

Adults with uncomplicated influenza typically have fever and respiratory symptoms for about three days, after which time most show signs of improvement. But if you get better for a day or two and return with a fever, you should call your doctor. If you have children younger than 5, older family members above 65 years of age or relatives with compromised immune systems - including those with chronic health conditions - you should also ask your doctor for advice. These groups are more likely to suffer complications from the flu, so getting treatment early can help avoid more serious illness. Every year, complications of the flu require more than 200,000 people in the United States to be hospitalized.

When to go to the ER

Still, there are times when you should go to the hospital for the flu, such as when you or a loved one experiences severe dehydration, which can show up as:

• confusion

• dark-colored urine

• weakness

• dizziness

• limited appetite

• extreme thirst

• severe or consistent vomiting

Other signs of a flu-related emergency include severe chest or abdominal pain, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

Warning signs are slightly different for children and infants, too. If you have a child with any of the following symptoms, you should take them to the ER with the flu:

• a bluish color to the skin

• a severe headache

• a stiff neck

• an inability to take in fluids

• trouble urinating

Also, if you have an infant, watch out for the following red flags:

• a fever over 100.3 (in a baby under 3 months old)

• an absence of tears while crying

• irritability that is not consolable

• an inability to eat

• fewer wet diapers than normal

- Zoheb Osman, DO, is a family medicine physician with UChicago Medicine AdventHealth Medical Group in Hinsdale.