Caring Currents

Flu Alert: 10 Warning Signs That It's Time to Call the Doctor

Last updated: Oct 07, 2009

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Image by Phillie Casablanca used under the creative commons attribution license.

I know we're all anxious about swine flu this season, but the truth is that for most people, the flu -- no matter what type of flu it is -- doesn't pose a serious danger.

Colds and flu normally cause what doctors like to refer to as "self-limited" illness -- this means you feel sick but eventually get better on your own. Typically there's really no point in calling the doctor, because antibiotics don't work on flu, since it's caused by a virus. Anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu, aren't usually necessary to recover.

In some cases, though, the flu develops into something more dangerous, such as pneumonia or other complications.

Here are 10 warning signs that it's time to call the doctor.

  1. High fever "“ over 101 degrees for more than a day
  2. Fast, shallow breathing or rapid pulse
  3. Difficulty breathing "“ feeling like you can't draw in a breath or get enough air
  4. Chest pain "“ sharp or stabbing pains or aches when you breathe in; gets worse with coughing
  5. Repeated vomiting and diarrhea
  6. Decreased urination (or decreased tears, in an infant) "“ this is a sign of dehydration
  7. Dizziness when you stand up "“ also a sign of dehydration
  8. Blue or purple discoloration around the mouth
  9. Mental confusion or disorientation -- that wasn't present before you got sick
  10. Convulsions or seizures

If you have any of these symptoms, don't wait to call, because once pneumonia or other serious infection sets in, things can move quickly.

People at higher risk for severe illness include pregnant women, young children, and adults with chronic illnesses or weak immune systems.

Those of us caring for older adults feel particularly worried, because seniors are generally at high risk for getting very sick from seasonal influenza. The H1N1 strain is a little different in this respect; adults over 60 seem to be somewhat protected from it. Still, when older adults get sick, we need to watch them carefully to make sure it's not developing into something more serious.

If you have any doubt whether you need medical care, call your doctor's office and ask to talk to the advice nurse for more information. The advice nurse will quiz you about the symptoms you're experiencing or seeing and advise you on what to do next.