When to See a Doctor for Cold and Flu Symptoms

Most of us don't go to the doctor when we have a cold or even the flu. But there are times when our symptoms may warrant a visit for further evaluation or treatment. If you aren't sure when to see a doctor for your cold and flu symptoms, this list will help clear up the confusion.

Fever

Woman checking her temperature. France
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Surprisingly, when you should see a doctor for a fever usually has nothing to do with the number on the thermometer.​

It does have to do with other symptoms you are dealing with, how long it lasts and what happens when you take medications to try to bring it down.

Congestion

Mother blowing daughter's nose
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Congestion is not often a cause for ​concern, but there are times that it won't go away or it becomes so bad that it is painful.

You should see a doctor if your congestion persists for more than 10 days or is accompanied by these symptoms:

  • Fever over 100.4
  • Yellow or green nasal discharge
  • Severe sinus pain
  • Sore throat or breathing difficulty
  • Fever in a child under age 2
  • Infant having difficulty feeding or breathing

Cough

Teenage Girl Coughing
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Coughs are annoying at best but when do they get bad enough to need treatment? The answer to this varies a lot by what type of cough you are dealing with, what other symptoms you have, and what chronic medical conditions you might have.

If you have a cough that is painful or your chest feels tight when you breathe, you need to seek medical attention. Coughing up pink, frothy mucus is a medical emergency.

More reasons to see the doctor for a cough include:

  • Productive cough with mucus that is yellow, green, or tan lasting more than a week, or is accompanied by a fever.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Short of breath and wheezing.
  • Night sweats or fevers at night.
  • Whooping cough symptoms, including constant coughing and making a whooping sound when trying to breathe, especially in children under 1 year old. 
  • A cough lasting more than three weeks.
  • A child with a cough and fever over 102 F
  • Croup in children
  • Infant that is coughing for more than a few hours

Sore Throat

Doctor checking girl's throat
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If your throat hurts so bad that you cannot swallow, you need to see a doctor. Although we get sore throats with many common illnesses such as the cold and flu, it should not be so bad that it interferes with your ability to eat or drink.

Headache

Headache
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Headaches are fairly common, especially in our stressful, busy culture, but they can also be a sign of something serious and even life-threatening.

If you have a headache that feels explosive or like "the worst headache of your life", or you lose consciousness, seek medical attention immediately. You also need emergency treatment (call 911) if your headache is accompanied by any of the symptoms of stroke, which include blurred vision or loss of vision, weakness, slurred speech, confusion or memory loss.

A headache that's accompanied by fever, a stiff neck, persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea could mean you have an infection, and you also should see a doctor immediately. The same goes if you've had a head injury and you develop a headache.

Even if your headache is not that severe, you may need to see your healthcare provider if you have a fever, stiff neck, persistent vomiting or diarrhea, or you have had a head injury. A migraine lasting for 72 hours without a four-hour pain-free period also merits medical attention.

Abdominal Pain

Doctor and abdominal pain
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Stomach pain can be a tricky symptom. Although it is common and can occur with many different illnesses, it can also be a symptom of something more serious.

Knowing the difference can be difficult. However, if you have any of these signs of potentially serious abdominal pain, you need to see your healthcare provider for further evaluation:

As a rule of thumb, any abdominal symptom should be checked by a doctor if you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Dull pain lasting more than a week
  • Significant pain that doesn't get better in 24 to 48 hours
  • Pain that is getting more severe or happening frequently
  • Bloating that lasts for more than two days
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than five days
  • Fever
  • Burning or painful sensation when urinating

Vomiting and Diarrhea

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Vomiting and diarrhea are awful. They make us feel terrible and can lead to dehydration if they are bad enough. But when do they become so bad that you need to seek medical treatment?

If you are vomiting uncontrollably and unable to keep anything down at all, you probably need to be seen. If you are vomiting blood, a black substance or bright green bile, contact your healthcare provider. Make sure you read the full list so you know what to watch for if you have vomiting or diarrhea.

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