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Got the Flu? You Probably Shouldn't Head to the ER

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: Feb 12th 2019

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TUESDAY, Feb. 12, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Flu season is reaching its peak in the United States, which means emergency departments could fast become crowded with people who really aren't sick enough to be there.

Healthy people who have flu-like symptoms such as high fever, muscle or body aches, exhaustion and loss of appetite should not go to the emergency department, according to medical experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

"If you have all of those classic flu-like symptoms, it's really best to either see or call your primary care provider or visit an urgent care clinic," said Dr. Stephen Russell, an associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics.

"Most healthy adolescents and adults without chronic illnesses can be treated quickly and most effectively this way, and it won't put a strain on city and community emergency departments, which typically care for acute and severely injured patients," Russell explained in a university news release.

When otherwise healthy patients with flu-like symptoms go to emergency departments, it causes overcrowding and delays care for all patients, he added.

It also puts ER patients with weakened immune systems, and even health staff and visitors, at increased risk of getting the flu.

"The other side of that is that if you come to the emergency department and you don't have the flu, you have heightened your risk of catching it or other communicable diseases by being in the hospital," said Dr. Janyce Sanford. She's chair of the department of emergency medicine at UAB.

"It's better to stay home until you are fever-free, treat your symptoms and call your primary care provider to discuss the possibility of antiviral medication," Sanford advised.

You should never hesitate to call your primary care doctor if you're sick, Russell said. "That's why primary care and urgent care physicians practice, to help those in need," he said. "Call if you are sick or experiencing the onset of symptoms."

Some patients with flu-like symptoms should consider going to the emergency department, including infants, toddlers, those over the age of 65 with severe chronic illnesses such as cancer, COPD, heart disease or diabetes, and those with suppressed immune systems.

Others patients who should be seen at the emergency department include: patients with the flu who develop chest pain, shortness of breath, persistent vomiting, altered mental status or fever with rash. Also, children who are persistently irritable, vomiting, not taking fluids, have difficulty breathing, have a fever with rash or seem confused should go to the ER, Sanford said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the flu.