You Have the Flu. Should You Go to the Doctor, or Wait It Out?

sick, flu, woman
(Image credit: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock)

When you have the flu, one choice looms large in front of your feverish eyes: Should you drag your aching body out in the cold to go to the doctor or hospital, or should you just wrap yourself in blankets, drink fluids and stay put?

For sick people, there's no downside to going to the hospital or seeking care from a professional, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease specialist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. The antiviral drugs that can help people with the flu work better if they are prescribed early on, he said.

In deciding whether to head to the doctor's office or hospital, the main symptom that people should watch for is shortness of breath, Adalja told Live Science. [Flu Shot Facts & Side Effects (Updated for 2017-2018)]

"When someone is unable to breathe normally, that's a sign the flu may be progressing to pneumonia," and the person should definitely seek care, he said. Having difficulty breathing means that the infection has moved downward. Usually, the influenza virus infects the upper part of the respiratory tract, for example, the bronchi (the tubes that lead into the lungs), he said. If the infection moves down into the lungs and causes pneumonia, a patient can get worse very quickly.

Another sign of a particularly severe case of the flu that needs treatment is an unrelenting fever, Adalja said. If a person has a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius) or higher, and the fever does not get better after taking acetaminophen or another over-the-counter medicine, then that person should see a doctor.

Fevers raise the heart rate, which takes a toll on the body, he said. Fevers can also make people feel especially miserable, so seek care if you feel that you cannot cope with your fever, he said.

A third reason to go to the doctor is a feeling of complete fatigue, to the point of being unable to do anything, and being completely confined to bed, he said.

Some groups of people are at higher risk of developing pneumonia or other complications from the flu, Adalja said. For example, pregnant women, people who have had organ transplants and cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy should strongly consider seeking care at the earliest signs of illness. In addition, people caring for young children or older adults should take them for treatment if they suspect the flu. Children under 6 months old, frail older adults and people with respiratory conditions such as severe asthma are at especially high risk of developing pneumonia during a flu infection, he said.

Doctors worry about pneumonia developing in flu patients because pneumonia impairs the lungs' ability to function, and the body may not be able to get enough oxygen. In severe cases, flu patients may develop a severe breathing problem called respiratory distress and need to be hospitalized and put on a mechanical ventilator, he said. [6 Flu Vaccine Myths]

People with the flu who choose to stay home should keep track of their symptoms. "Make sure you are getting better," Adalja said. If you're not — if it's getting harder to breathe, if the fever isn't going away or if it's getting more and more difficult to do daily activities — then get to a medical professional, he said.

It may be helpful even to simply call your doctor if you're feeling sick, he noted. During flu season, doctors know that most people with certain symptoms have the flu, so they are often willing to call in a prescription for antiviral medicine to a pharmacy without requiring a patient to first come to the office.

So far this year, the U.S. is experiencing a relatively harsh flu season.

In recent years, the number of influenza-related deaths in the U.S. has ranged from 12,000 (during the 2011-2012 season), to 56,000 (during the 2012-2013 season), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Original article on Live Science.

Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.