Flu: When to see a doctor or visit the emergency department

Woman holds head while lying in bed next to a nightstand holding a glass of water, over-the-counter medication and a thermometer.

Influenza is on the rise in the United States right now, with cases increasing from an already particularly rough start to what we consider flu season.

Multiple respiratory viruses are circulating along with the flu, too, including RSV and COVID-19. So how do you know what to do about flu symptoms?

I’ll provide some basic answers to common questions about dealing with the flu:

What flu symptoms mean I need to see a doctor?

With all the influenza cases that we’re seeing, there are definitely some symptoms that mean you should see a physician sooner rather than later. You should see a health care provider if any of the following is true:

  • You have difficulty breathing, especially at rest
  • You have trouble taking a deep breath
  • You have a worsening cough
  • You’re lightheaded or pass out
  • You’re experiencing chest pain or neck stiffness
  • You’re persistently vomiting

People over 65 and those who are immunosuppressed, such as those undergoing cancer treatments or who have had an organ transplant or are pregnant, should monitor their symptoms closely and talk with their primary care providers about being seen for flu symptoms as soon as they start feeling sick.

When to see a primary care provider vs. urgent care vs. emergency department for the flu

In general, I always encourage someone to start with their primary care provider or an urgent care to be evaluated for flu symptoms. Emergency departments can be crowded, and the sickest individuals routinely get seen first. Unless someone is dangerously sick, the wait to be seen can be long. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center offers several options throughout central Ohio for quick evaluations, including Telehealth Immediate Care, Same-Day Immediate Care and Advanced Immediate Care.

Differences in cost and services: primary care, immediate care and emergency department

What if I don’t have a primary care provider and I have worrisome flu symptoms, but urgent care has closed for the day? Should I visit the emergency department or wait for a same-day immediate care site to open?

This can be a difficult scenario to provide guidance for, and it really depends on the individual person and their medical history. If you don’t have a primary care doctor and you consider yourself high-risk for flu complications, then visiting an emergency department for your symptoms might be necessary if urgent cares are closed.

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Treatment available for flu symptoms

Depending on the severity of flu symptoms and a person’s medical history, there are antiviral treatments available for influenza. For high-risk individuals, pregnant people, elderly patients, immunosuppressed individuals or people who are otherwise at high risk for severe disease, these flu antivirals can be prescribed to help minimize some of those symptoms and hopefully prevent it from progression to severe illness.

Do I really need a flu shot? And other flu vaccine questions answered

If my flu symptoms aren’t severe enough for medical care, should I still be tested for flu?

If you have flu symptoms but aren’t feeling sick enough to need care, testing isn’t essential unless you fall into a high-risk category and might need antiviral treatment. Otherwise, it’s best to stay home, rest, stay hydrated and use over-the-counter medications to manage your symptoms until you're feeling better.

How can I know if my respiratory symptoms are from the flu, COVID-19, RSV or another illness?

Without testing, it can be hard to definitively differentiate among all the possible viral illnesses that are spreading. Nasal swabs can help diagnose influenza, COVID-19 and RSV, but having a true diagnosis is often unnecessary unless someone is high-risk for severe disease. Home rapid tests are more than sufficient to make a diagnosis for COVID-19.

Need medical care quickly, but don’t need an emergency department?

Ohio State Advanced Immediate Care provides convenient, walk-in care for common conditions and serious, non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries — no appointment needed.

Find a location

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