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When the flu becomes an emergency

August 31, 2023
2 minutes

For many of us, having a bad case of the flu can be a miserable experience. But sometimes the flu can be more than just an annoying sickness. It can be downright dangerous.

How the flu can be severe
Although it takes a few days to a week or two, most people recover from the flu, which is a viral respiratory infection. But some people develop severe and potentially life-threatening complications, like pneumonia. The flu can also lead to dehydration. And it can make other health problems a person may already have, like asthma or heart disease, worse.

Although anyone can develop flu complications, people at higher risk include adults over age 65, younger children and pregnant women. People with underlying health conditions—such as diabetes or heart, kidney or lung disease—are also at higher risk.

Warning signs of a flu emergency
If you have flu-like symptoms (including fever, chills, body aches and a sore throat) and you’re in a high-risk group, ask your doctor about antiviral medicines. When started early, they may help you recover sooner.

You should also pay attention to your symptoms and seek medical care right away if you have signs or symptoms of a flu emergency, which can include:

  • Trouble breathing or fast breathing in children.
  • Chest pain.
  • Dizziness or confusion.
  • Severe muscle pain, which can be bad enough to affect walking.
  • Seizures.
  • A fever or cough that improves, but then returns or worsens.
  • In children, a fever above 104 degrees or, in infants younger than 12 weeks, any fever.
  • Dehydration. Signs include not urinating, having a dry mouth and having no tears when crying.
  • A worsening of chronic health conditions.

Is it an emergency? If you’re not sure whether your flu illness rises to the level of an emergency, call your primary care provider or visit the nearest emergency room.

Sources: American Academy of Family Physicians; American Academy of Pediatrics; American Red Cross; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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