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Coughs, Sneezes, and Wheezes: When Should You Go See a Doctor?

Every year between October and February, we start to cough and blow our noses en masse. For this reason, experts refer to the cold weather months as “flu season,” though contracting colds are more common.

Catching a winter bug can be bothersome and inconvenient, despite its prevalence. While most of us are comfortable waiting out the symptoms of a cold or flu at home, there are times when seeking professional medical advice and care may be warranted. Read on to learn more.

When Is a Cold More Than a Cold? 

Normal healthy adults contract the common cold 2-3 times a year on average, and children tend to get sick at an even higher rate. Some typical symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches.

There is no actual cure for the cold or flu, which is why home recovery is the conventionally recommended remedy. Over-the-counter medications and homeopathic remedies may help temporarily alleviate symptoms and discomfort caused by a cold or flu. However, the CDC’s primary recommendation is to isolate at home, eat well, stay hydrated, and get plenty of rest.

However, if you begin to experience symptoms like chills, high fever, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, you may have contracted a more severe strain of the flu (or worse). If you or somebody you’re caring for are at higher risk of complications from flu-related symptoms, contact your doctor right away. Severe flu can intensify into bronchitis, sinus infection, pneumonia, and sometimes–though rarely–even hospitalization or death.

If you have health insurance, one key benefit is being able to seek medical care whenever it feels warranted. Most standard health insurance policies will cover a doctor’s visit with only a marginal copay on your end.

5 Common Symptoms to Monitor 

While most cold and flu symptoms are well-documented and mild, you should stay vigilant if anything worsens or seems out of the ordinary. Keep an eye out for any of the following outlying scenarios:

You are Sick for Weeks 

An average healthy individual should recover from the flu within a week, while the lingering effects of a cold might last up to 7-10 days. If weeks have gone by, and you are still just as sick, you may be dealing with something more severe. COVID-19, pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and even allergies can last for weeks–sometimes even months. Keeping tabs on the duration of your illness can be beneficial in recognizing whether you should seek medical attention.

You Have a Sustained High Fever

A low-grade fever frequently accompanies the flu and occurs when your body temperature is only mildly above 98.7°F (somewhere between 98.8°F-100.3°F). Anything above 100.3°F, however, may be cause for concern.

A lingering high fever may be indicative of, or become, something worse than just a cold or flu. Immunocompromised individuals, young children, and older adults are all particularly vulnerable to flu-related complications and should see a doctor if their temperature peaks above 100.3°F.

You Cannot Keep Liquids or Food Down

While some nausea and occasional vomiting are typical flu symptoms, uncontrollable vomiting or diarrhea over a sustained period can be fatal. As your body attempts to purge itself of whatever ails you, you can become severely dehydrated and lose valuable minerals.

If you can’t keep food or water down, you will be unable to replenish the lost fluids and nutrients required to help your body recover. Seek medical help immediately should these symptoms last more than a day or two.

You Have Trouble Breathing or Chest Pain

Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath means that a person cannot move air in and out of their lungs naturally or without great effort. Should you be gasping for air, breathing too fast or too slow, unable to catch your breath, or experiencing notable chest pain, you may have a respiratory infection like pneumonia, diphtheria, or severe influenza. The CDC recommends an emergency room visit as soon as you suffer from chest pain or struggle to breathe.

You Have Blood in Your Cough or Bloody Phlegm From Coughing

Blood in your phlegm or cough is typically from the lungs and is often the cause of a chest infection or long-lasting, aggravated cough. While a bloody cough can be a side-effect of an enduring cold or flu, it can also indicate more significant problems like pneumonia, tuberculosis, pulmonary embolism, or lung cancer.

If you are coughing up large and sustained amounts of blood, consult your general practitioner immediately–especially should this be accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain, vomiting, and other previously mentioned symptoms.  

Are You More At Risk for Cold Complications? 

While the cold or flu shouldn’t be of serious concern for most healthy people, specific demographics are prone to complications from the flu and should seek medical help should they sustain notable symptoms. Some people who might be at greater risk of complications include:

  • Children younger than 12 months old
  • Adults age 65 or older
  • Pregnant women or anyone who’s given birth in the past two weeks
  • Anybody under 19 years old who is experiencing long-term aspirin therapy
  • Anyone with certain chronic medical conditions, including lung diseases such as asthma, an airway abnormity, heart disease, neurological disorders, metabolic disorders, and kidney, liver, or blood disease
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system due to long-term use of steroids or other immunosuppressants, HIV, organ transplant, blood cancer, or chemotherapy treatment.
  • People with a body mass index of 40 or greater
  • Those living in a long-term care facility such as a nursing home
  • Anyone currently in the hospital

Seek Medical Care If You Think You Need It 

If you are experiencing severe cold or flu symptoms, remember that standard health insurance policies will cover a routine visit to a doctor. Typically, you’ll only pay a small out-of-pocket copay. Even if you are going through minor symptoms or feeling generally unwell, you can seek help without worrying about a hefty bill.

Note that the author of this piece is not a medical professional and outlines facts that the CDC and other reliable sources have documented. While this article may contain some helpful information, it’s best to consult a qualified doctor should you need medical advice.

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