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When Should You Go to the Hospital With the Flu?

By

Updated February 15, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Every time flu season comes around, thousands of people flood hospital emergency rooms with flu symptoms. In particularly severe flu seasons, we see everything from very long wait times to hospitals setting up temporary triage tents outside just to deal with the flu, to emergency departments turning people away who aren't experiencing life threatening illness or injury. Flu season always takes a toll on our hospitals and emergency rooms, but many of the people who rush there for treatment don't really need to.

There are a variety of reasons that people go to the emergency room when they have the flu, including: feeling so bad they think there could be something seriously wrong, not having insurance, and the belief that the ER is the only place they can be treated without paying first. It is an enormous problem that stretches our already strained healthcare system even thinner.

But despite all of these unnecessary ER visits, there are certain times when a person with the flu does need to seek emergency medical treatment.

Watch for these signs of an emergency when you have the flu:

  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Chest Pain or Severe Abdominal Pain
  • Confusion
  • Sudden Dizziness
  • Severe Vomiting or Vomiting That Won't Stop: When To See a Doctor For Vomiting

If you or someone you are caring for experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention right away.

Signs of a medical emergency in children can be different from those in adults.

If your child experiences any of the following symptoms when she has the flu, a visit to the emergency room is warranted.

  • Rapid Breathing or Difficulty Breathing
  • Bluish Color to the Skin, especially on the face or chest
  • Not Drinking Enough Fluids, Leading to Dehydration: Symptoms of Dehydration in Children
  • Difficult or Unable to Wake Up or Interact With Others
  • Severe Irritability: Child Does Not Want to Be Held
  • Stiff Neck
  • Severe Headache that doesn't improve after taking Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen)

In addition to the symptoms above, if you have an infant with the flu and she experiences any of the following symptoms, take her to the emergency room.

  • Fever (over 100.3) and is under 3 months old
  • Unable to Eat
  • No Tears When Crying
  • Significantly Fewer Wet Diapers Than Normal

Because it can be difficult to determine when a child is having difficulty breathing, be sure to know what to watch for: Signs of Difficulty Breathing in Kids.

If you or your child has the flu but you are not experiencing any of these signs of a medical emergency, it is very unlikely that you need to go to the emergency room. Contact your healthcare provider to get advice about what to do for your flu symptoms, and stay away from people who aren't sick. Although you may feel like you've been "hit by a truck," these symptoms typically last about a week regardless of whether or not you go to the ER. Making an unnecessary visit to the emergency room only exposes people with other serious illnesses or injuries to your germs, and exposes you to theirs.

There are a few instances in which you should see your health care provider when you or your child has flu symptoms but you don't necessarily need to go to the emergency room. These include:

  • Flu symptoms that get better for a day or two then return with a fever and are worse than before
  • Flu symptoms and any chronic health condition that puts you in a High Risk Group
  • Child with Fever and a Rash

When you are sick with the flu, try to remember that the emergency room should be used for emergencies — not as a doctor's office. If you are unsure whether your symptoms warrant a trip to the ER, contact your health care provider for guidance. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Sources:

"The Flu: What To Do If You Get Sick" Seasonal Influenza (Flu) 26 Jan 12. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 7 Feb 13.

"Flu Instruction Sheet" Flu. KidsHealth.org. Nemours Foundation. 8 Feb 13.

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