When to See Your Doctor for a Cold or the Flu

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8 Myths About the Common Cold

These pieces of advice may be popular, but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate.

When to See Your Doctor for a Cold or the Flu

When cough syrup and chicken soup aren’t doing the trick, it may mean your cold or flu is something more serious.
Women sick in bed

Getting sick with a cold or the flu is no fun. The sneezing, coughing, body aches, headache, and stuffiness can make you feel lousy for a few days or more. The good news is you can usually treat the symptoms at home with over-the-counter medicines and plenty of rest. But there are times when you may need more than a box of tissues and your favorite spot on the couch. Sometimes colds and flus can lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia. Or what you think is a cold or the flu is really something else, like allergies or a more serious infection. In these cases, it’s best to call your doctor. You may need medical care or a different type of treatment.

Symptoms to Watch For

Here’s a list of symptoms you shouldn’t ignore. Call your doctor if you have:

  • Chest pain or pain in your stomach 
  • Cough that keeps you awake at night 
  • Dizziness 
  • Fever of 100.5 degrees F or higher 
  • Fever that doesn’t go down within a few days or respond to fever-reducing medicine 
  • Severe sinus pain 
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing 
  • Swollen glands 
  • Vomiting that is severe or persistent 

If You Don’t Feel Better

Another sign you may need medical care is if extra rest doesn’t seem to be working. Call your doctor if you: 

  • Start to feel a lot worse or don’t feel better after 2 weeks—a sign of a more serious infection 
  • Have symptoms that get better and then get worse again—again, a sign of a more serious infection 
  • Have a chronic disease, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes, and have flu symptoms—if you have one of these conditions, you’re more likely to have complications from the flu 
  • Have cold symptoms that keep coming back—this may be a sign of allergies rather than a cold 

Fortunately, most colds and flus get better on their own. But don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you’re worried about your symptoms or have any questions. 

Key Takeaways

  • Sometimes colds and flus can lead to illnesses like pneumonia. Or what you think is the flu is actually a more serious infection.
  • Call your doctor if you have symptoms such as a fever that doesn’t go down, severe vomiting, or trouble breathing.
  • Also call if you don’t feel better after 2 weeks, or if you have symptoms that improve, then worsen again.
Medical Reviewers: Brian McDonough, MD Last Review Date: Nov 8, 2013

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View Sources

Medical References

  1. Get Set for Winter Illness Season. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM143453.pdf.
  2. Common Cold. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/commonCold/Pages/symptoms.aspx.
  3. The Flu: What to Do if You Get Sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/takingcare.htm.

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