How To Handle A Flu Emergency

A man on a sofa with a blanket and cold/flu medicine on a coffee table

What is a flu emergency?

Normally, people recover from the flu after within a week or two. But sometimes, the flu can lead to dangerous complications that require emergency care.

The CDC estimates that 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized because of the flu every year. 36, 000 thousand die from the flu annually. While infants, the elderly, and people with certain diseases or a weakened immune system tend to be the most vulnerable, a flu emergency can happen to anyone.

Here are some flu emergency facts that you need to be aware of.

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What Are Normal Flu Symptoms?

Different strains of the influenza virus cause the flu. You get the flu by either inhaling the germ or picking it up on your hands and then touching your eyes or mouth. Symptoms usually appear one to four days later.

The flu can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from a cold. But the flu usually comes on faster and is more severe. Also, keep in mind that the  “stomach flu” is not the same as influenza. The flu very rarely causes stomach or intestinal problems in adults.

Normal flu symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches

What Are Normal Flu Treatments?

Although flu vaccines can prevent certain strains of the flu, there’s not much you can do after you get the flu. If taken within 48 hours of flu symptoms, drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza may lessen some of the symptoms. To ease flu symptoms, you can also:

  • Take over-the-counter painkillers like Advil, Motrin, and Tylenol to relieve body aches and headache and control fever.
  • Take over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants to help with congestion.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.

Antibiotics will not help treat the flu. Antibiotics only work against bacteria. A virus – not a bacterium — causes the flu. However, if you develop a secondary infection, or flu-related complication such as ear infections, sinusitis, or bronchitis, antibiotics may be needed.

What Are Flu Emergencies?

Serious flu-related complications include:

  • Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications of the flu. Untreated, it can be life threatening.
  • Muscle inflammation (myositis)
  • Central nervous system disease
  • Heart problems such as heart attacks, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), and inflammation of the sac around the heart (pericarditis)
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes
  • Reye’s syndrome, which is a serious illness that occurs most often in children.

What Are Flu Emergency Symptoms?

If you, or your child, develop any of the following symptoms, contact your health care provider immediately, since medical treatment is often necessary.

  • Coughing up blood- or green-tinged mucus; croup, which causes a loud barking cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or rapid breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Bluish colored lips or nails
  • High fever that last longer than normal
  • A constant cough that lasts longer than expected and/or worsens over time

Which People Are At Risk For Flu Emergencies?

Those at increased risk of flu-related complications include:

  • Newborns and children up to 5 years old (especially children under the age of 2)
  • People over 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live in long-term care facilities
  • Caregivers of children or the ill
  • People with chronic diseases such as asthma, neuromuscular disease, heart problems, or lung disease
  • People who have depressed immune systems, either from disease or its treatment

How To Handle A Flu Emergency

If you or a family member suffer from any flu emergency symptoms, it is extremely important to either call a doctor immediately, or to go to the emergency room.