Dangerous Flu Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Be aware of dizziness, trouble breathing and other signs you need medical attention.

Dangerous Flu Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Most cases of the flu are a nuisance—you’ll be on your back for a few days or weeks, and then you can return to your normal routine. But certain flu symptoms, such as sudden dizziness or breathing problems, may signal a more serious medical problem, like sepsis or pneumonia. What’s more, the flu shares many symptoms with COVID-19, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the two.

Make sure you know how to differentiate normal symptoms from serious ones and when to seek help, so you can prevent a potentially life-threatening situation.

Normal flu symptoms
There are some telltale signs of the flu that most people can expect to experience, though not everyone will have all symptoms. These include:

  • Fever/chills
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Stuffy nose

Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

Many believe that if you have the flu, it has to come with a fever—but that's not the case. While most people develop a high temperature, not every person with the flu will.

Most of the time, these flu symptoms subside after one or two weeks, even without treatment. In some cases, those with weakened immune systems or who are at higher risk of developing complications could benefit from antiviral medications. Folks at high risk include pregnant women, young children, seniors, nursing home residents and people with blood disorders, neurologic conditions, diabetes, severe obesity and chronic lung, heart, kidney or liver disease. Antiviral prescriptions can minimize symptoms, shorten the time you have the flu by one or two days and prevent major complications.

If you’re in a high-risk group, you should call a healthcare provider (HCP) at the first sign of the flu. Even if you’re not in that category, if you’re very sick or worried about your symptoms, it’s best to go ahead and see an HCP. People with sick children age 5 or under should be sure to contact an HCP for advice about antiviral therapy. Antiviral medications work best if you start them within the first two days of symptom onset.

Note that common flu symptoms may also be signs of COVID-19. For that reason, experts advise that anyone older than 6 months of age get the flu shot. Doing so not only protects you from the flu, but it may also help HCPs distinguish between flu patients and those with COVID-19 during seasons when both respiratory infections are expected to circulate.

It’s ideal to have your flu shot before the end of October, but even getting it in January or February is better than not receiving it at all. It takes about two weeks after being vaccinated for your body to develop antibodies that protect you from the flu.

Understand, too, that it’s possible to have the flu and other infections simultaneously, including COVID-19. Speak with an HCP about diagnosis so you can begin the correct treatments as soon as possible.

Serious symptoms that are cause for concern
In addition to the typical signs of flu, there are some age-dependent factors that may indicate a more serious problem. These are some of the potentially dangerous symptoms, by age group:

Infants:

  • Trouble eating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Crying without tears
  • Fewer wet diapers than usual

Children:

  • Breathing problems
  • Ribs retracting, or pulling in with breaths
  • Bluish skin tone
  • Muscle pain or chest pain
  • Dehydration (dry mouth, no tears while crying, no urine for eight hours)
  • Difficulty waking up or interacting with others
  • Increased or unusual irritability
  • Seizures
  • Worsening of chronic illnesses
  • Improvement in flu symptoms to later return with fever and cough
  • Fever above 104°F or a fever accompanied by a rash

Adults:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal discomfort, chest pain or severe muscle pain
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Severe weakness
  • Confusion
  • Extreme or persistent vomiting
  • Worsening of chronic illnesses
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

If you or a loved one have any of these symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room. They could be a sign of a severe illness, such as pneumonia, an asthma attack, sepsis, inflammation of the heart or brain or a severe case of COVID-19. If left untreated, these conditions can be life-threatening. If you think you may have COVID-19, put on a medical grade or double-layer fabric face covering before help arrives.

What to do if you get the flu
Getting the flu vaccine and practicing healthy habits—like washing your hands regularly, avoiding sick people and eating a healthy diet—can help prevent the disease and keep germs from spreading. But if you happen to contract the flu, here’s what you should do:

  1. Call an HCP if you have serious symptoms, or if you have an increased risk of flu-related complications.
  2. Stay home (unless, of course, you’re going to your HCP) and try to avoid contact with others.
  3. Get plenty of sleep, and make sure you rest when you need to.
  4. Stay hydrated. Take a look at the color of your urine and how often you’re urinating—it should be clear to light yellow and you should be urinating every three to five hours.
  5. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen if you have muscle aches or a fever.

The flu virus should be taken very seriously, especially for children and the elderly. While most will recover within a couple of weeks, you should keep your HCP in the loop if your symptoms don’t improve.

Medically reviewed in February 2021.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Flu Symptoms and Complications.” August 31, 2020. Accessed January 27, 2021.
UpToDate.com. “Patient education: Influenza symptoms and treatment (Beyond the Basics).” December 2020. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Flu Treatment.” August 31, 2020. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): What To Do If You Get Sick.” January 25, 2021. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Healthy Habits to Help Prevent Flu.” September 23, 2020. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. “You Think It’s the Flu — Now What Should You Do?” October 16, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. “Influenza (Flu): Management and Treatment.” November 25, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2021.
UC Berkeley. “All about the flu and how to fight it.” 2021. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Influenza (flu): Overview.” December 19, 2020. Accessed February 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs.” January 25, 2021. Accessed February 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Protect Against Flu: Caregivers of Infants and Young Children.” September 15, 2020. Accessed February 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Diagnosing Flu.” January 27, 2021. Accessed February 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Influenza (Flu): Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When.” January 25, 2021. Accessed February 5, 2021.

More On

Tamiflu: Should You Worry About Side Effects?

article

Tamiflu: Should You Worry About Side Effects?
Though COVID-19 has dominated headlines since early 2020, you shouldn’t forget influenza. The flu remains a big-time health concern for healthcare pro...
How to Survive Cold and Flu Season This Year

slideshow

How to Survive Cold and Flu Season This Year
From opening a window for a little fresh air to disinfecting your kids’ toys, these easy tips can keep you healthy during cold and flu season.
How to Stay Healthy in an Office Full of Sick People

article

How to Stay Healthy in an Office Full of Sick People
During the height of flu season, you'll likely find yourself surrounded by coughing, sniffling and sneezing coworkers. And close working quarters alon...
Surviving the Flu: Symptoms, Treatment and Danger Signs

article

Surviving the Flu: Symptoms, Treatment and Danger Signs
Here’s one thing you can count on: The flu season is unpredictable. Some years it might be mild, and others it could be brutal. Why is one flu season...
4 Reasons People Avoid the Flu Shot—And Why You Shouldn’t

article

4 Reasons People Avoid the Flu Shot—And Why You Shouldn’t
Flu season is here, and with it, symptoms like fever, body aches, chills and congestion. Yet surprisingly, more than half of all Americans opt against...