Cold and flu season: When should I see a doctor?

Lifespan Blog Team

Right now it seems like everyone is reaching for the tissues or cough drops. Cold symptoms typically have us searching the medicine cabinet for decongestants and cough medicine, but how long must you tough it out before you see a doctor?

We asked Stephanie Maryeski, MD, director of primary care for Newport County Lifespan Physician Group practices, to describe the signs that it’s time to see a physician.

“In general, most upper respiratory infections — which can include sinusitis and bronchitis—do not require antibiotics,” says Dr. Maryeski. “The vast majority are viral, and just respond to the tincture of time, with rest and fluids. However, symptoms that seem to get better and then come back should always be checked out.” In addition, she says, the following symptoms always warrant a visit to your primary care provider.

Persistent fever

A fever is a telltale sign that you’re sick, but one that doesn’t go away after a few days of home remedies is a warning that you might have an infection that needs medical attention.

Difficulty breathing

A cold or flu may be tough on your nose and throat, but it shouldn’t cause difficulty breathing or chest pain. These symptoms suggest asthma or pneumonia, and merit a physician’s evaluation.

Trouble swallowing

Colds often come with a sore throat, but painful swallowing can mean that something more serious is going on, such as strep throat or another infection. These must be diagnosed and treated by a doctor.

Congestion and headache that won’t go away

Cold, flu and allergies block your nose and can lead to a sinus infection. If your over-the-counter cold medicine isn’t working, see your doctor.

You can’t keep food or fluids down

Fluids are essential to cold and flu recovery. If you’re having trouble eating and drinking without vomiting, you need to visit your physician. You may need an IV drip to give your body the fluids it needs.

Letting flu-like symptoms go untreated can lead to complications such as pneumonia, sinus infections, and ear infections. Your chances of getting the flu are a lot lower if you get vaccinated against the flu. You can get your flu shot with your primary care provider or at most pharmacies.

Weekly Poll

When do you see a doctor for cold and flu symptoms?
When my fever won't go down
44%
When I have difficulty breathing and swallowing
26%
When I can't keep food down
3%
When I can't stop coughing
9%
Never
18%
Total votes: 34
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