When Should I See My Doctor if I Think I Have Swine Flu -- or Any Flu?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 19, 2010
A fellow caregiver asked...

When should I see my doctor if I think I have swine flu?

Expert Answers

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is a senior medical editor at Caring.com and a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics. She also provides housecalls and geriatric consultations in San Francisco.

For most people, the H1N1 flu (formerly known as swine flu) is like the seasonal flu: It causes a "self-limited" illness, which means you notice symptoms and feel sick but eventually get better on your own. Antibiotics don't work on flu, since it's caused by a virus, and antiviral medications aren't usually necessary to recover.

Some people, however, develop symptoms of a more serious influenza infection. These include:

  • Fast breathing, difficulty breathing, and/or chest pain

  • Severe vomiting

  • Signs of dehydration, such as decreased urination (or decreased tears, in an infant), or dizziness when standing

  • Blue or purple discoloration around the mouth

  • Confusion that wasn't present before the illness

  • Convulsions or seizures

If you have any of these symptoms (or notice them in someone you're caring for), seek immediate medical attention, as you may need hospitalization.

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

If you have any doubt as to whether or not you need medical care for possible influenza, contact a medical professional for more information. Many doctors' offices and health plans have nurses available by phone for this purpose. This is especially important for people who are part of a high-risk group, such as young children, pregnant women, or adults with chronic illnesses. For those sick enough to be hospitalized or who seem at particularly high risk for complications, antiviral medications are available to help fight influenza. The most commonly used drugs are oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu) and zanamivir (trade name Relenza).

Remember, at this time the CDC isn't trying to track all influenza cases. If you think you might have the flu, it generally no longer matters whether it's H1N1 or not, especially if you aren't sick enough to be hospitalized. For most people, the most important things to do are to take care of yourself at home so you can get better, try to avoid getting other people sick, and contact a medical professional if you think you might be sick enough to require medical care.