9-1-1, I have the flu! Knowing when to head to the ER if you have the flu

While physicians and nurses suspect the flu epidemic may have peaked, Oakland County emergency rooms and centers were inundated with flu patients this month.

Some local medical centers have even ramped up flu hotline services in an effort to address the declared epidemic that continues to welcome 2013.

And even though the epidemic may have reached its peak, the true height of the flu season still lie ahead of us—behold, February.

So, here are some things you can consider before heading to the ER if you suspect you or your child has the flu.

Typical flu prognosis

This season, patients have been experiencing the influenza virus for about ten days, Lynn Sheff, a registered nurse at Beaumont Health System said.

“What most people want to know is just a little bit of reassurance,” she said.

Beaumont recently ramped up their flu hotline service (1-888-375-4161) to address common concerns and deter people from heading to the ER where they could expose themselves to more infection or expose others to the flu.

(The ER should be used for severe flu cases—and we will get to that in a second.)

Some of the questions discussed include caution with severity of symptoms.

Fever: The flu fever typically rises to 101 and higher.  The best way to keep temperatures from escalating is to administer regular doses of over-the-counter fever suppressants such as Tylenol or Motrin, Sheff suggests.

Body aches and coughing: Some coughing is common among those enduring the flu this year as well as the infamous body aches and pains.

GI trouble: Children will typically exhibit the gastrointestinal effects of the flu such as diarrhea, Sheff said.

These symptoms collectively should be treated with over-the-counter medication. Since the flu is a virus, an antibiotic will not hinder the infection. Sheff prescribes plenty of rest and fluids, too.

“A Slurpee free-for-all!”

When it comes to surviving the flu with efficiency, keeping your or your child’s fever down and consuming ample fluids might be the best prescription.

One of the more enjoyable ways that Sheff has found to help keep kids hydrated if they have the flu is to serve or purchase lots of Slurpees.

“They just don’t feel good and sometimes you have to bribe them,” she said, “And Slurpees tend to be a good trick for kids.”

When to head to the ER

So when should flu-fighters wave the white flag and trek to the closest ER?

If you can’t kick the fever: If your or your child’s fever does is unmanageable by using over-the-counter remedies, or the fever lasts longer than three or four days, contacting a doctor or visiting the ER is warranted.

“Because [you] may have gotten a secondary infection such as a sinus infection or bronchitis,” Sheff said.

Chest pains or shortness of breath: If you suspect the flu but are having chest pains or shortness of breath at any point, Sheff and medical staff alike advise you to head to the ER or consult your physician right away. Some symptoms of heart attack resemble those of the flu.

Any change in mental status: Some kids enduring high fevers due to the flu “get really goofy,” Sheff said. If your child is extremely lethargic and you can’t wake them up, head to the ER, she said.

Signs of dehydration: Enduring high fevers and not consuming adequate—if not ample—liquids, flu-suffers can exhibit symptoms of severe dehydration.

For babies and young children, if there is crying but no tears or if their diapers are dry when they should be urinating, they may be dehydrated.

To assess if older flu-fighters are dehydrated, Sheff suggests the trick of pinching the skin atop the hand. In a healthy and hydrated person, the skin should return to normalcy, but in a severely dehydrated patient, the skin will remain in a pinched form.

Don’t be afraid to consult your physician with questions: If you are unsure of anything and have chatted with medical personnel through a flu hotline service, give your physician a call. Doctors prefer their patients call them, even after clinic hours, Sheff said.

“It’s OK to call your doctor and it’s OK to ask them questions. The doctor would rather do that then meet you in the emergency room for something they could have taken care of over the phone,” she said.

Getting vaccinated

If you remain undecided about getting the flu vaccine this year, Sheff encourages everyone to protect themselves since the peak of the flu season isn’t until February.

“The flu vaccine is a dead virus,” Sheff said, to combat common misconception that it is a living virus. “The flu shot itself does not cause the flu.”

To find a local flu vaccine distributor, Sheff recommends visiting www.flu.gov and using the flu shot locator by entering your zip code.

Interested in more tips?

Earlier this fall, I caught up with two Rochester-area nutritionists to find ways each of us can prevent the flu by enhancing our immunity. You can find the article here.

For more information, you can also chat with medical staff through Beaumont’s flu hotline by calling 1-888-375-4161.

Be sure to also check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website here.

About Jen Bucciarelli

Veggie lover and aspiring word chef, reporter Jen Bucciarelli covers all things health and medicine for Rochester Media and The Community Edge. She is always on the hunt for local experts who can help improve the lives of our readers. Send her a note at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com.

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