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When we feel unwell, particularly if this feeling comes on suddenly, our first port of call will typically be the GP surgery. As highly-trained medical professionals, we entrust our doctors to identify how unwell we are, provide an accurate diagnosis and, if necessary, perform tests or refer us to a specialist for treatment. In most cases, they match our trust with total professionalism and care.
However, many diseases and infections share common symptoms, which can lead to an incorrect diagnosis. The flu fits firmly within this category. Due to its array of shared symptoms, flu misdiagnosis is not entirely uncommon, particularly during the winter. In these circumstances, the harm of a misdiagnosis can range from none whatsoever, to severe, long-term suffering for and, in some cases, even death.
Below we will highlight the reasons why a flu misdiagnosis might occur and what illnesses it can be mistaken for, and the potential implications this may have for patients.
What can be mistaken as the flu?
The flu is one of several common viral infections that can infect anyone at any age, particularly during flu season (December-March in the UK). While there is no complete cure for the flu, people can be vaccinated against this each year to reduce their risk of catching this and passing it onto other people.
Symptoms that may lead to a flu diagnosis include:
- Sudden fever (38°C or higher)
- Body aches
- Tiredness or exhaustion
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Sleeping difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain or diarrhoea
- Nausea or vomiting
Of course, these flu-like symptoms are also shared with a vast number of other viral and bacterial infections and other conditions. This is critical, because while flu symptoms can be treated simply through bed rest, liquids and taking paracetamol, numerous diseases that share or mirror these require prompt and specialist treatment, which is why a flu misdiagnosis can be so significant.
Some of the more notable conditions that share flu-like symptoms include:
The common cold
Like the flu, colds are viral infections that are more likely to occur during winter, but differ in that their symptoms take longer to progress and they usually don’t cause any chest pain or body aches.
A bacterial infection that causes painfully sore throats, which a doctor may test for by swabbing the back of your throat and, if positive, will treat using antibiotics.
Pneumonia, a typically bacterial infection that targets the lungs, can either be misdiagnosed as flu or can emerge following the flu, and is potentially fatal if not treated with antibiotics.
With flu-like symptoms such as headaches, fever and fatigue, a bacterial meningitis misdiagnosis can have serious consequences for a patient, including deafness, amputation, brain damage and, in the worst cases, death.
The symptoms of sepsis are closely related to the flu and chest infections, and can happen to anyone with a prior infection. However, it can also cause blue, pale, or blotchy skin, slurred speech and a rash (similar to meningitis). Like meningitis, a sepsis misdiagnosis can be life-threatening, potentially leading to causing organ failure, loss of limbs and death.
Commonly referred to as mono or the “kissing disease” this virus shares flu-like symptoms, but can also lead to a swollen liver or spleen. This is rarely fatal, but people often feel the effects for up to a month, and in rare cases even longer.
Caused by the same kind of viruses as the flu or cold, there is no test for bronchitis, it is another viral infection confused for the flu. But it is rarely fatal and symptoms will usually disappear over time.
Furthermore, less common but still serious illnesses that can demonstrate flu-like symptoms include septicaemia, some cancers, tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.
As you can see, the consequences of a flu misdiagnosis can vary significantly – in many instances, the patient will recover from their condition on their own or is unlikely to experience any long-term harm. In other cases, the implications can be severe and possibly even fatal.
This is why GPs and other medical professionals should take every reasonable action when examining a patient to determine if their level of unwellness requires further treatment or specialist testing.
It is also key to point out here that the flu itself is not entirely safe. Public Health England figures from between 2014/15 and 2018/19 revealed that on average 17,000 people each year die due to the flu (although this number varies significantly year-to-year). It can prove especially harmful for the elderly, young children and pregnant mothers.
This means that failing to diagnose influenza for something less serious is something medical professionals also need to keep in mind when examining patients, particularly if they fit into a high-risk category.
Can a doctor test for flu?
In most cases, a GP will determine the likely nature of the illness affecting their patient due to how unwell they look and feel, based on what the patient informs them of their symptoms. They are not expected to provide a certain, 100% accurate diagnosis, but to use their experience and understanding to determine if they are suffering from the flu or another disease altogether.
As part of this initial examination, a doctor should identify any red flags that indicate that the illness may be more serious. This could be either on sight, such as the rashes or blotchy skin that often appear in cases of meningitis or sepsis, or by how the patient is describing their symptoms. If anything gives them reason to believe the infection is more severe, they have a duty to provide treatment, perform further testing, or refer the patient to a specialist for further examination.
In instances where the infection looks severe, a doctor may perform a rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT). This takes a throat swab from the patient, and can provide a diagnostic result in under 20 minutes. However, not all GPs will have access to this type of technology, meaning they will typically determine based on the look and testimony of the patient.
What consequences can a flu misdiagnosis have?
As highlighted in the list of illnesses that share flu-like symptoms, the consequences of a flu misdiagnosis are incredibly varied.
If the flu misdiagnosis was in fact a cold, bronchitis, or a similar low-risk illness that will go away over time, then this will typically result in no harm to the patient and, subsequently, no negligence.
However, when it comes to conditions like sepsis, pneumonia or meningitis that can carry potentially serious and fatal consequences, a flu misdiagnosis may be considered an act of negligence and it may lead to long-term ramifications for the patient and their loved ones.
How do solicitors determine a misdiagnosis?
We have worked with a number of people in the past who have suffered avoidable harm due to an incorrect flu diagnosis, which resulted in life-altering outcomes for them and their families.
A misdiagnosis claim can be the result of several situations, including:
- A failure to adequately examine the patient
- A failure to investigate their symptoms
- A failure to refer the patient for specialist examination/treatment
- Incorrect record-keeping
- A failure to act on test results or incorrectly reading these
When investigating these on behalf of our clients, we look back to the latest stage the patient could have received successful treatment, and trace the professionals they had appointments with prior to that date. The specialist knowledge of our medical experts is helpful here in estimating how unwell the patient would have been at the time of the appointment, and if this should have been identified by the doctor.
By committing the time and resources to perform this, as well as understand the patient’s experience and examining what the doctor recorded at the time of their appointment, we leave no stone unturned in establishing whether the patient’s suffering was the result of negligence.
Speak to the specialists
We hope this has broadened your understanding of what a flu misdiagnosis is and what impact it can have. While we would like to stress that in the overwhelming majority of cases GPs and fellow medical professionals perform their duties with the utmost care and attention, we also know first-hand how big an impact a preventable misdiagnosis can have on someone’s life.
If you believe your suffering was the result of a negligent misdiagnosis, our solicitors will help you establish whether you have a claim and, if you do, to help you receive the compensation you are due and the closure you deserve.
To find out more, get in touch with our team today.
All content contained within this article is meant for general information only – this should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. If you require legal advice specific to your situation, please contact our team directly.
Gadsby Wicks is not liable for any diagnosis made from the content of this article, nor does it endorse any service or external site linked to within the article.
Always consult your GP if you are concerned about your health and wellbeing, or speak to us if you require legal advice.