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When to go to the Doctor for a Cold

Written By northidahodpc

When to go to the Doctor for a Cold

May 9, 2011


Countless trips are made to health care providers for upper respiratory symptoms when the appointment was felt not to be necessary. Here are five signs and symptoms that physicians view as important in determining whether a “cold” needs treatment. This list is not exhaustive, and since every clinical scenario is unique, caution should be made at generalizing recommendations.

  1. Persistent Fever: Fever that persists more than 2 or 3 days often suggests a bacterial cause, requiring antibiotic treatment. A cough associated with a persistent fever, productive sputum and chest pain usually denotes either bacterial bronchitis or pneumonia.
  2. Sore Throat: In addition to fever, strep throat usually involves a sore throat, often with exudate (white pus spots), headache and swollen glands in the neck. Strep throat is rarely associated with runny nose , sneezing, cough or body aches.
  3. Shortness of Breath: Shortness of breath, regardless of the cause, always needs prompt evaluation. Smokers are more prone to bacterial infections of the lungs and sinuses, and asthmatics have more severe reactions when their respiratory tree is infected.
  4. Persistent Sinus Congestion: Sinus congestion that lasts more than 2 weeks, especially if accompanied by bloody nasal discharge, often indicates bacterial sinusitis. Color of nasal discharge, other than blood, is not especially helpful in determining whether an infection is bacterial or not.
  5. Acute Ear Pain: Acute ear pain, especially with drainage, needs evaluation as does a red eye with purulence.

Typically, a mild sore throat, runny nose and/or cough without persistent fever and shortness of breath is a benign viral infection and should run its natural course within 3 to 10 days.  For more information on how to alleviate your symptoms during this time, see our article, Which Over the Counter Medications Should I Use for My Cold Symptoms?

If you are experiencing any of the above listed symptoms, it is recommended you contact your physician to schedule an appointment.

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