What to Know About Telehealth for the Flu

Because the news has been dominated by the novel coronavirus, it can be easy to forget another infectious respiratory virus that also poses a threat—influenza. There are four main types of influenza viruses that circulate each year. Typically, some variant of the flu infects millions of people annually. The winter before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, there were about 38 million reported cases of influenza in the United States alone.

The use of telehealth services has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will likely be a preferred method to control infectious diseases going forward. Keep reading to learn more about how telehealth services can be used to treat the flu and when you still need to see a doctor.

flu telehealth

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When to Use Telehealth for the Flu

The flu can be difficult to diagnose because many flu symptoms can also present with other respiratory viruses, including those causing COVID-19 and even the common cold. Distinguishing what is causing your symptoms and how best to treat your illness can take some work. Unfortunately, respiratory viruses are easily spread, and going to see a doctor can result in you unintentionally sharing your virus or—if you're not sick already—catching a virus from someone else.

Telehealth is a great way to get care and reduce the risk of disease transmission. While telehealth won't replace in-person care completely, a virtual visit with your doctor or another healthcare provider can help when you have the flu.

The flu is considered a low-acuity (not severe) condition that can be managed via telehealth. Doctors can diagnose the flu by asking you about your symptoms during a telehealth visit. If they determine that you have the flu and may benefit from medications, they can send prescriptions to a pharmacy near you to be picked up or delivered.

When to See a Doctor in Person

You may want to see a doctor in person if you fit into a category that puts you at high risk for flu complications, such as:

Even without any of these conditions, you may need to visit a healthcare provider in person if:

  • Your symptoms become worse after they have started to improve
  • You have new weakness or dizziness
  • You aren't urinating
  • You have extreme pain or muscle aches
  • You have a persistent fever that isn't relieved with over-the-counter medications
  • Your fever or cough return after a period of improvement
  • You have pain or pressure in your chest
  • You have seizures or other neurological disturbances
  • You become lethargic or are difficult to waken
  • You have severe shortness of breath

If you are having trouble breathing or are experiencing severe shortness of breath or chest pains, you should call 911 or go to a hospital emergency department immediately. These are medical emergencies that could be a sign of a more serious condition or infection.

Benefits and Challenges

Telehealth has many benefits, particularly when it comes to containing transmissible diseases and getting people seen by a physician quickly. In fact, it's important for people with the flu to get medical help within two days of symptom onset because antiviral medications are the most effective during this time. To help your doctor monitor your condition remotely, there are a number of at-home devices that you can use.

Other benefits of telehealth services include that it:

  • Allows for social distancing and quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Improves access to care in rural or low-service areas
  • Is convenient
  • Is cost effective—copayments may be reduced or waived
  • Allows for remote monitoring of symptoms and disease progression
  • Requires no travel for people who are homebound, lack transportation, or feel unwell

Limitations of Telehealth for the Flu

While telehealth may be helpful for routine visits and check-ins with your doctor, it can sometimes be difficult to get the help you need through telehealth. For example, your healthcare provider will not be able to listen through a stethoscope to the sounds your lungs are making, draw blood, or perform a flu test with telehealth. Also, people with chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk for flu complications may be better served by seeing a doctor in person so that the extent of their symptoms can be properly assessed.

One complication of the flu is pneumonia, and it can be challenging for your doctor to diagnose this condition remotely. Typically, a doctor would need to listen to your lungs in person and view an X-ray to make a proper diagnosis of pneumonia.

There are other concerns regarding telehealth services that may make people less willing and able to go remote. These include:

  • Security
  • Lack of access to technology or a stable Internet connection
  • Lack of coverage by insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid
  • Poor application or software performance
  • Hesitation to learn new technology

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for the Flu

If you are interested in setting up a telehealth appointment, you may first want to contact your doctor's office or healthcare facility to see if there are any local resources available. If not, there is a host of private-pay telehealth services nationwide. Unless you are prepared to use a private-pay service, you will need to check if your health insurance provider covers telehealth visits or even provides them for your health condition. Medicare and Medicaid, as well as a number of private health insurers, have expanded their coverage and reimbursement offerings for telehealth services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before your appointment, you should:

  • Find out how you will meet the provider—by phone or video
  • Understand the cost and who will pay for your visit
  • Learn what information your provider will want from you
  • Be aware of what privacy and security measures are in place to protect your health information

When it's time for your appointment to begin, you should treat it just as you would an in-person visit, with a few special considerations:

  • Find a private place for your appointment where there will be no distractions and you and your provider can focus on the visit.
  • Make sure there is plenty of light so the provider can see you clearly.
  • Have a record of the symptoms or conditions you want to discuss, when the symptoms began, and what problems they are causing you.
  • Be sure to have available a list of your current health conditions and any medications you take.
  • Take note of any language or communication barriers that need to be addressed with an interpreter or another caregiver.
  • Check before the appointment to make sure your technology works, if there is a link or service for you to log on to at the appointment time, and that you understand how to connect with your provider.
  • Close extra windows or tabs to make sure the application you are using for your appointment works well.
  • Check to make sure you have a strong Internet connection in the area of your home where you intend to take the appointment.
  • Be sure your device's battery is charged or plugged in before your visit begins.
  • Keep the camera of your phone or computer at eye level during the appointment.
  • Wear loose clothing, or make sure you can show the affected part of your body to your provider during the appointment, if needed.
  • If you have at-home monitoring tools like a pulse oximeter or blood pressure cuff, keep those nearby during your appointment.
  • Be ready to share information about your local pharmacy, including a phone number and address.

What Happens During the Visit?

When you schedule your visit with a telehealth provider, you should be given instructions on how to log on and a link to use. Clicking on the link or opening an app to begin a telehealth appointment works the same as checking in for an office visit. You should be prepared to begin your appointment at that time. Here's what may happen next:

  • You may be prompted to go through checks of your video and sound connection.
  • Once your connection is confirmed, you will be placed in a virtual waiting room.
  • The visit should begin with the provider asking questions about the condition that led you to make your telehealth appointment. You will be asked to review all your symptoms, when they started, how severe they are, and how they are affecting your health and well-being.
  • If you have remote monitoring devices, the provider may ask you to use them to provide information such as your temperature or a blood pressure reading.
  • Your provider will then examine each body part that could help to make a diagnosis, walking you through what you will need to do to perform the assessment. For a flu diagnosis, you may be asked to cough, breathe deeply, or zoom in on certain physical features or body parts, such as your throat.
  • When the assessment is complete, your provider will discuss your diagnosis with you and explain any treatments or follow-up appointments that may be required.
  • At the end of the visit, your provider should issue a summary of their diagnosis, as well as any recommended prescriptions or other treatments.
  • You should also be given instructions on what to do if the treatment doesn't resolve your problems and next steps if your symptoms get worse.

A Word From Verywell

Telehealth is a unique experience that isn't for everyone or for every condition. If you aren't familiar with technology, don't know how to use digital tools, or don't have access to a computer, mobile device, or the Internet, you shouldn't hesitate to seek in-person medical care. Not every condition can be treated virtually, but your provider most likely can make a flu diagnosis through telehealth and reduce the risk of your spreading the virus to others. You can pick up any medications you need directly from a pharmacy near you or have them delivered. However, if your symptoms don't get better or become worse, you may need to schedule an in-person visit.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimated influenza illnesses, medical visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States—2019-2020 flu season. Updated October 6, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People at high risk for flu complications. Updated February 11, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu: what to do if you get sick. Updated January. 25, 2021.

  4. Blandford A, Wesson J, Amalberti R, AlHazme R, Allwihan R. Opportunities and challenges for telehealth within, and beyond, a pandemic. Lancet Glob Health. 2020 Nov;8(11):e1364-e1365. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(20)30362-4

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Helping patients prepare for their telehealth appointment.