Have the flu? Head to Urgent Care, not the ER
Feeling walloped by the flu? You might want some medical attention, but for most of us, the emergency room is not the place to start.
“If you are able to see your primary care doctor in a timely fashion, it’s best to be seen by the person who is going to be following your care long term,” said Molly Malone, MD, an Emergency Medicine physician who works at the Cape Cod Hospital Emergency Department and rotates through Cape Cod Healthcare’s Urgent Care Centers.
“If you are unable to get an appointment, then the Urgent Care Centers are the best place to start.”
While the flu can leave you feeling downright rotten, if you’re otherwise in good health, there are good reasons not to go to the ER.
“At the Urgent Care Centers, you can be seen in a timely fashion,” said Dr. Malone. “The wait times are generally much shorter than in the emergency room.”
You’re also doing other patients a favor by not going to the ER with a case of the flu.
“Our emergency rooms are taking care of the sickest of sick,” she said. “People who are very ill come in through the emergency room to be admitted to the hospital.
“There are elderly patients in the emergency room who are immunocompromised, people on chemotherapy or immuno-suppressant therapy and sometimes even very young babies who are immunocompromised just because they are not fully vaccinated. If you go the ER, you could give them the flu.”
When to Go to the ER
There are times when it makes sense to go to the ER when you have the flu.
“If you are feeling especially short of breath and unable to walk up even a few stairs without stopping to catch your breath, or if you have comorbidities, such as a lung disease or active cancer, you should go to the ER,” she said. “When it comes to children, if you have that mommy or daddy instinct that your kid just does not look well, obviously the emergency room is available.”
If your urgent care doctor determines that you should be hospitalized for your illness, they can order a transfer at that time, Dr. Malone said.
"After taking a history from the patient and performing a physical exam, we may feel it is necessary for you to be transferred to the hospital where further imaging or tests can be performed in order to determine the severity of your illness. We have procedures in place to get patients from the Urgent Care Centers to the hospital."
How do you know if you have the flu and not a nasty cold or bug?
“Flu symptoms can vary from person to person, but most typically, you will have a high fever and widespread body aches,” she said. “Your back hurts, your legs hurt, and sometimes people even say their hair hurts.
Dr. Malone explained that there are many other viruses that can cause a flu-like illness, but often a patient who had the flu will also have a headache and high fever.
“Usually there's a headache associated with it, and just feeling generally under the weather. Usually with the flu, most people will have a fever.”
Nationally, reports of flu cases have declined since hitting a seasonal peak in mid-February but, most years, flu cases linger into May and June, so it still makes sense to get a flu shot, if you didn’t get one during the fall or winter, she said.
“That’s my number-one tip for preventing the flu – that and lots of hand washing,” said Dr. Malone.