When to See a Doctor for a Cold

When should you see a doctor for a cold?. Cultura/Colin Hawkins/Riser/Getty Images

Most people don't need to see a doctor when they have a cold. We get sick for about a week and then the symptoms go away. Viruses are typically self-limiting. Antibiotics won't help, but they go away on their own anyway, so we just deal with the symptoms until they do. 

Occasionally though, a cold turns into something more serious and a trip to the doctor is warranted. Some people may have underlying health conditions like asthma that make this more likely.

Others may develop a secondary infection - often caused by bacteria - that needs to be treated. But how do you know? 

We will look at some common reasons you or your child may need to see a doctor when you have a cold (or started with one anyway). 

  1. Your Cough Lingers or Changes. - Coughs with colds are common. They are usually dry and last for a few days. But if your cough changes from dry to wet, you start running a fever or it lasts for more than about two weeks, you need to contact your health care provider. Be sure to check the list for all the reasons you may need to see a doctor with a cough. 
  2. Your Sore Throat is Worse Than it Should Be.  - Sore throats are not unusual with colds. They are typically fairly minor and are caused by irritation in the throat from post nasal drip. But if your sore throat is very painful, it may be worth having checked. Make sure you know when to see a doctor for a sore throat. 
  1. Your Congestion Won't Go Away. - Runny and stuffy noses are one of the tell-tale signs of the common cold, but it shouldn't last longer than a week or two. If it does or if it gets to be very painful, contact your health care provider. Know when to see a doctor for congestion. 
  2. You Have a Fever That Won't Come Down or Concerns You. - Fevers are actually not very common with colds in adults but can occur fairly frequently in children. If you or your child has a fever that doesn't come down after taking fever reducing medications, contact your health care provider. Fevers are rarely something to be concerned about and they are not dangerous but your doctor may want to examine you to figure out if something other than a cold is causing it. If your child is under 3 months old and has a fever over 100.3 degrees F, seek medical attention right away. 
  1. You Have a Headache That is Severe or Unusual. - Headaches are not uncommon with colds. They are often dull and come on due to pressure from congestion. However, if you have a sudden, severe headache or you also have neck pain and stiffness, seek medical attention right away. There are several other reasons you may need to see a doctor for a headache as well, make sure you know what they are. 
  2. You Think Your Child May Be Having Trouble Breathing. - When kids gets seriously ill from respiratory infections like colds or the flu, it is usually due to problems with their breathing. It is not always obvious when kids are having trouble breathing, so you need to know what to watch for and how to tell. Children may be playing or smiling but could still not be getting enough oxygen. Just because they aren't obviously struggling for air, doesn't mean they are breathing well. 
  3. You Started to Get Better but Then Your Symptoms Came Back Even Worse Than Before.  - This often occurs when a person has developed a secondary infection. If you have a cold or respiratory virus for a few days, start to get better for a day or two and then your symptoms come back and they are different or worse than before, you need to contact your doctor. 

    A vast majority of people that get colds do not need medical treatment, but knowing when to seek it out is important. 


    "Common Cold and Runny Nose". Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work 30 Sep 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 15 Feb 15. 

    "Common Cold". MedlinePlus 5 Feb 15. US National Library of Medicine. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 15 Feb 15. 

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