June 16, 2024

Vita Nectar

Health is the main investment in life

When to See a Doctor for a Cold or Flu: 10 Reasons

6 min read

Most people don’t need to go to the doctor for a cold or flu.

However, symptoms that are severe, persistent, or clear up and then return should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. Seek emergency medical treatment if there is difficulty breathing, a high fever, or a severe headache.

This article discusses when you should go to the doctor for a cold or flu. It explains when a cough, fever, headache, and other symptoms warrant medical attention. It also outlines who is at high risk for complications and should consult their healthcare provider.

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Difficulty Breathing

Congestion from colds and flu can make breathing harder. However, difficulty breathing may warrant emergency medical attention.

In children and adults, seek immediate medical treatment for difficulty breathing with any of the following:

Fever Won’t Break

Fevers are a normal part of the immune system’s response to a virus. A low-grade fever (less than 102 F in adults and children over 2 years) helps your body fight infection.

However, higher fevers may warrant medical attention if they do not come down with medication or persist for several days. Some fevers even require emergency medical attention.

Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room for the following fevers:

  • A rectal temperature above 100.4 F in children 3 months or younger
  • An oral or forehead temperature of 105 F or higher in adults and children that does not come down with medication

Contact your healthcare provider for the following fevers:

  • 102.2 F or higher in children under 1 year
  • 102.2 F or higher that lasts longer than 24 hours in children under 2
  • 102.2 F or higher that lasts longer than two days in children older than 2
  • 103 F or higher in adults that does not respond to treatment or lasts longer than two days
  • Comes and goes for longer than a week, even if not high
  • Is accompanied by a rash
  • Resolves completely, then returns

You should also contact your healthcare provider if you have a fever and have recently traveled overseas.

Headache Won’t Go Away

Headaches are fairly common with colds and flu and typically resolve on their own. A headache that is severe or does not go away should be evaluated.

Contact your healthcare provider for a headache that:

  • Doesn’t improve with over-the-counter medications
  • Gets worse over the course of 24 hours
  • Interferes with your ability to work or sleep
  • Is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or sound
  • Lasts longer than 24 hours

Headaches can sometimes be a medical emergency. Call 9-1-1 or see immediate medical attention for a severe headache or a headache that is accompanied by the following:

  • Confusion
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Extreme sensitivity to light
  • High fever
  • Loss of coordination
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Trouble speaking or walking

It Hurts to Swallow

Pharyngitis (sore throat) is common with both colds and flu and often resolves on its own.

However, a severe sore throat may be a secondary bacterial infection or strep throat. See your healthcare provider for a sore throat that:

  • Hurts to swallow and hinders your ability to eat or drink
  • Interferes with your ability to breathe while sleeping
  • Is accompanied by a fever over 104 F or a red rash

Lingering Congestion or Cough

Congestion and coughs that do not show signs of improving after 10 days should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

A lingering cough and congestion can indicate a secondary infection such as sinusitis, acute bronchitis (chest cold), or pneumonia.

Signs you should contact your healthcare provider for congestion and coughing include:

  • Chest pain
  • Cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • Coughing up blood or bloody mucus
  • Coughing up excessive amounts of mucus
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A fever over 104 F
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

You should also see your healthcare provider if your symptoms resolve but then return, a sign of a secondary infection.

Rash With a Fever

See your healthcare provider if you develop a rash along with cold and flu symptoms. A rash with a fever is a symptom of more severe infections such as:

  • Measles
  • Mononucleosis
  • Scarlet fever
  • Shingles

Other rash symptoms that warrant a doctor’s visit include a rash with the following circumstances:

  • Appears suddenly 
  • Begins within two hours of taking antibiotics, in particular penicillins, cephalosporins, or sulfonamides 
  • Blisters
  • Covers full body 
  • Spreads rapidly

Ear Pain Doesn’t Respond to Meds

Earaches are common with a cold. The pain can typically be managed with Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) and a warm compress held to the ear.

Ear pain that doesn’t respond to at-home treatment could be an ear infection. See your healthcare provider if you or your child has an earache with the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Ear pain stops suddenly, with or without a pop sound (a sign of a ruptured eardrum)
  • High fever
  • Facial twitching
  • Severe ear pain
  • Severe headache
  • Swelling behind the ear
  • Worsening symptoms, even with treatment

Can’t Keep Food Down

Contact your healthcare provider if you or your child cannot keep food down. Persistent or severe vomiting with or without diarrhea can lead to dehydration.

Seek medical care if vomiting persists for more than 24 hours and is accompanied by the following signs of dehydration:

In children, seek emergency care for vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by:

  • No urine output in eight hours
  • No tears when crying
  • A lack of alertness when awake

Severe Stomach Pain

Severe and persistent stomach pain that accompanies cold and flu symptoms should be evaluated by your healthcare provider.

Stomach pain is an uncommon cold and flu symptom. However, other flu-like viruses and influenza subtypes like H1N1 can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.

In children, persistent abdominal pain accompanying cold and flu symptoms warrants emergency medical treatment.

Though uncommon, abdominal pain is a sign of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness that can occur in children with the flu, chickenpox, and other fever-causing viral infections who receive aspirin.

Reye’s syndrome typically starts with severe stomach pain, vomiting, lethargy, and confusion. It can lead to seizures and death if not treated quickly and appropriately.

High Risk of Complications

Some people are at higher risk of severe complications and even death from influenza. Antiviral medications can reduce the risk of complications if taken within the first two days of symptoms.

Risk factors for flu complications include:

  • Ages 5 and younger, especially those under age 2
  • Ages 65 and older 
  • Asthma
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Liver or metabolic disorders
  • Neurologic conditions, such as stroke
  • Pregnancy
  • Weak immune system

If you are in any high-risk groups, contact your healthcare provider if you have the following flu symptoms:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Fever or feeling feverish
  • Headache

Flu symptoms tend to occur quickly and progressively worsen over a few hours.

Summary

For the most part, the common cold and influenza can be managed with at-home treatments. However, symptoms that are severe, persist, or return after resolving may require prescription medication. People who have a high risk of complications should also see their doctor if they may have the flu.

You should go to the doctor for a cold that lasts longer than 10 days and fevers that last longer than two days. Headaches and earaches that are severe or do not respond to over-the-counter pain medicine should also be seen by your healthcare provider.

Signs that require emergency medical care include difficulty breathing, a fever over 105 F that doesn’t respond to medication, a headache with a stiff neck and fever, or loss of consciousness. In addition, children should be taken to the emergency room if they have persistent abdominal pain, vomiting with signs of dehydration, or a rectal temperature of 100.4 or high in infants.


By Kristina Herndon, RN

Kristina Herndon, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.  

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