When Should You Go to the Hospital With the Flu?

Every time flu season comes around, thousands of people flood hospital emergency rooms with flu symptoms. In particularly severe flu seasons, we see everything from very long wait times to hospitals setting up temporary triage tents outside just to deal with the flu, to emergency departments turning people away who aren't experiencing life-threatening illness or injury. Flu season always takes a toll on our hospitals and emergency rooms, but many of the people who rush there for treatment don't really need to.

There are a variety of reasons that people go to the emergency room when they have the flu, including feeling so bad they think there could be something seriously wrong, not having insurance and the belief that the ER is the only place they can be treated without paying first. It is an enormous problem that stretches this country's already strained healthcare system even thinner.

when to go to the hospital with the flu
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

When You Should Go 

Despite all of these unnecessary ER visits, there are certain times when a person with the flu does need to seek emergency medical treatment.

Watch for these signs of an emergency when you have the flu:

If you or someone you are caring for experiences these symptoms seek medical attention right away.

when to take your child to the hospital with the flu
Illustrated by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Signs of a medical emergency in children can be different from those in adults.

If your child experiences any of the following symptoms when she has the flu, a visit to the emergency room is warranted.

  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Bluish color to the skin, especially on the face or chest
  • Not drinking enough fluids, leading to dehydration
  • Difficult or unable to wake up or interact with others
  • Severe irritability: Child does not want to be held
  • Stiff neck
  • A severe headache that doesn't improve after taking Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen)

In addition to the symptoms above, if you have an infant with the flu and she experiences any of the following symptoms, take her to the emergency room.

  • Fever (over 100.3) and is under 3 months old
  • Unable to eat
  • No tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

Because it can be difficult to determine when a child is having difficulty breathing, be sure to know what to watch for.

Signs of Difficulty in Breathing in Children

If You Don't Need the ER

If you or your child has the flu but you are not experiencing any of these signs of a medical emergency, it is very unlikely that you need to go to the emergency room. Although you may feel like you've been "hit by a truck," these symptoms typically last about a week regardless of whether or not you go to the ER. Making an unnecessary visit to the emergency room only exposes people with other serious illnesses or injuries to your germs, and exposes you to theirs.

Contact your healthcare provider to get advice about what to do about your flu symptoms, and stay away from people who aren't sick.

There are a few instances in which you should see your healthcare provider when you or your child has flu symptoms but you don't necessarily need to go to the emergency room. These include:

  • Flu symptoms that get better for a day or two then return with a fever and are worse than before
  • Flu symptoms and any chronic health condition that puts you in a high-risk group
  • Fever and a rash in children

Serious Complications of the Flu

The flu is a serious illness that kills thousands of people each year. Many of those people end up developing secondary infections and complications when they have the flu. Some of the most common complications include ear infections, sinus infections, bronchitis, and bacterial pneumonia. People who have chronic medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease may experience significant worsening of those conditions while they have the flu. 

A Word From Verywell

When you are sick with the flu, try to remember that the emergency room should be used for emergencies—not as a doctor's office. If you are unsure whether your symptoms warrant a trip to the ER, contact your healthcare provider for guidance. If you don't have a primary care physician, try to find one. Contact your insurance company to find out who you can see or ask friends and family who they recommend. Even going to an urgent care or walk-in clinic is better than the emergency room if you don't have a life-threatening condition. 

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