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Flu complications: When to seek medical advice

Most healthy people get over flu after some days or weeks of discomfort. However, for elderly people or those with some medical conditions, flu can lead to complications and can be life threatening.

In these cases, it is important to know when to seek medical advice about flu.

Hundreds of people die from complications of seasonal flu each year in the UK. The number of deaths can be affected by different strains of flu that are around each year and how well the annual flu jab is working.

Flu symptoms and treatment

Different strains of the flu virus cause the flu. You get the flu by either inhaling the germ or picking it up on your hands and then touching your nose, eyes or mouth. Symptoms usually appear one to four days later.

The flu is sometimes hard to tell apart from a cold. But the flu usually comes on faster and is more severe.

Symptoms of the flu include:

You will probably feel better after a week or so. You may still have a few symptoms - like cough, fatigue and weakness - for longer than this.

Although flu vaccines can prevent certain strains of the flu, there's not much you can do after you are infected with it. If taken within 48 hours of getting the virus, drugs like oseltamivir and zanamivir may reduce some of the symptoms. To ease flu symptoms, you can also:

Keep in mind that antibiotics will not help treat the flu. Antibiotics only work against bacteria and the flu is caused by a virus.

Who's at risk of flu complications?

Usually, you don't need to see the doctor if you get the flu. Your body will fight off the virus on its own. However, sometimes you - or a family member - may face a flu complication. Some groups are at greater risk of complications from the flu, which can lead to emergency hospital admission. They include:

  • Newborns and children up to 5 years old
  • People over 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live in long-term care facilities
  • Caregivers of children or the sick
  • People with chronic diseases
  • People who have weakened immune systems, either from disease or its treatment.


Complications that can lead to a flu emergency

The flu can sometimes weaken the lungs, making it easier for a bacterial infection to take hold. The bacteria can cause:

  • Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, which is one of the most serious complications of the flu. Untreated, it can be life threatening
  • Bronchitis, an infection of the airways
  • Sinusitis, an infection of the sinuses.


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