When to Contact a Doctor about Flu Symptoms

By Anthony Komaroff, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

Question:

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., is professor of medicine and editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Komaroff also is senior physician and was formerly director of the Division of General Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. Komaroff has served on various advisory committees to the federal government, and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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.

Last Annual Review Date: 2009-01-22T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: Copyright Harvard Health Publications

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More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold. There are more than 1 billion colds in the United States each year.