You’re hacking and sniffling. Your throat hurts, your head aches, and all you want to do is spend the day in bed. In the back of your mind, though, you may be wondering whether you should drag yourself out of the house for a trip to the doctor.
Learning the signs that set common colds apart from more serious illnesses may help you decide whether to call the doctor or curl up under the covers until your symptoms subside.
Here’s how to tell when to see a doctor for the sniffles.
Disclaimer: the following is meant as information only and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition. If you have questions about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.
Your symptoms go beyond the usual coughing and sneezing.
Multiple viruses cause what’s known as the common cold. Each produces a similar set of symptoms, including:
- Body aches
- Low fever
- Pressure around the nose, ears or eyes
- Runny nose
- Sore or scratchy throat
- Stuffy nose
Your symptoms might range from barely noticeable (if you’re lucky) to pretty rough. But in general, it causes mild symptoms. You should still be able to swallow, and your head and body aches shouldn’t render you unable to move.
Other illnesses can cause more severe symptoms.
Influenza, for example, may be accompanied by a high fever, chills and intense muscle aches. Also known as the flu, this sickness can be responsible for upset stomachs, too — that’s not something you usually get with a cold. And a sore throat so severe that you can’t swallow might indicate strep throat.
If you are in terrible pain, unable to keep anything down or otherwise concerned about your symptoms, it’s a good idea to touch base with your healthcare provider.
The illness begins suddenly.
Coming down with a cold is usually a gradual process. You may have a day of feeling worn down followed by a day with a scratchy throat. It can take a while for the full-blown congestion to set in.
If symptoms come on strong and fast, you may be dealing with a different illness. A sudden fever and body aches may indicate that you have the flu rather than a cold. A sore throat that develops quickly could be strep.
Quick-onset symptoms typically warrant a trip to the doctor. If nothing else, a visit may help you rule out other illnesses and provide the peace of mind that it’s okay to rest and recover at home.
Plus, the sooner you see someone, the sooner you can get some medicine to relieve your symptoms. And, in the case of flu or strep, taking medicine earlier can help knock out the infection quicker.
You have a high fever that lasts for days.
A common cold usually causes only a low-grade fever — or no fever at all. If you have a high fever, it could be a sign that there’s something else going on. Consider a high fever to be anything above 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even if you have a fever that reaches that point, you don’t necessarily have to rush off to the doctor. If your other symptoms aren’t causing too much distress, you could wait a few days. Most experts recommend seeing a doctor after three days of a high fever.
Also, if your fever goes away and then returns, give your doctor a call.
Please note, the rules about fever differ for babies and kids:
- For infants under 3 months: Call the doctor about any elevated temperature.
- For babies between 3 and 6 months: Contact the pediatrician for a low fever accompanied by other symptoms. Even if there are no other symptoms, call once the fever reaches 102 degrees.
- For babies and toddlers between 6 and 24 months: Reach out to their doctor if your child has a 102-degree fever that lasts more than 24 hours. Call sooner if there are accompanying symptoms that concern you.
- For kids of any age: Call the pediatrician about a low fever that lasts more than three days.
Your breathing isn’t normal.
A run-of-the-mill cold shouldn’t keep you from breathing. Even though you’re stuffy, you should at least be able to breathe out of your mouth. If something’s not right with your breathing, don’t wait to get it checked out.
In particular, look out for wheezing and/or shortness of breath. Both of these symptoms indicate something deeper might be going on.
In kids, watch for retraction. That’s when each breath seems to make your child’s chest go concave. Tightening the neck muscles with each breath is another sign that your youngster is working too hard to get enough air.
You take a sharp turn for the worse.
Perhaps you’ve been muddling along with annoying symptoms for a few days, but now you feel downright awful. That might be a sign that you need a doctor’s care.
It doesn’t matter what your symptoms are. Whether your fever spikes or your sinus pressure becomes unbearable, it could be a sign that you need medical attention. It’s possible to have multiple infections at once, so don’t assume this is just more of the same.
Other symptoms that may come on suddenly include chest pain, a severe sore throat or an earache.
You’ve been sick for weeks.
Cold symptoms usually last about a week. If your symptoms drag on significantly longer than that, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re still sick after three weeks, it’s time for an appointment.
It might be that you have an illness other than the common cold. Or, your cold symptoms may have developed into a sinus infection.
There are other health factors at play.
For those who have chronic health conditions, these guidelines may not apply. Kidney disease, diabetes or another condition might not mix well with your cold symptoms. Also, if you’re receiving chemotherapy or other immune-suppressing treatment, you may have trouble fighting off even something as basic as the common cold.
If there’s any question about whether you need to be seen, contact your doctor. A medical team that knows your history can provide personalized advice.
You suspect it’s something else.
Chances are that by the time you’re an adult, you know how standard seasonal sniffles treat you. So if you feel like this might be something else, you could be right. Check in with a doctor if you feel worse than you normally do when sick with a cold. The primary tests this time of year include flu tests, covid tests and strep tests.
You may need to be tested in order to return to work, especially if you have symptoms that point to covid. Some workplaces may not accept home tests.
That’s not the only reason to ask for testing, though. As we mentioned earlier, earlier testing means earlier treatment if needed. If a flu test comes back positive, you might qualify for the antiviral Tamiflu. Some COVID-19 patients can get monoclonal antibodies or antiviral pills. Strep throat is treated with antibiotics.
The sooner you go to the doctor for a diagnosis, the sooner you can start the appropriate treatment. Or, if you confirm that you just have an everyday case of the sniffles, you can hunker down with tissues, chicken soup and your favorite streaming service for some much-needed rest.