Cold & Flu Symptoms: Should You See a Doctor?

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Welcome to cold and flu season. It’s that icky time of year where everyone around you seems to be coughing and blowing their noses, and soon you may find yourself doing it, too. So, how do you know when you have a cold and when it’s the flu? Both colds and the flu are brought into the body through the mucous membranes, which are located in the nose, eyes and mouth. Cold and flu viruses are passed around by touching your nose, eyes or mouth with your hands. Frequent hand washing is an important part of staying cold- and flu-free this year.

Do I have a cold?

Several hundred viruses can cause a cold and symptoms develop two or three days after exposure to the virus. They can begin with a watery, runny nose and possibly a sore throat that lasts one to two days. Colds are contagious for the first three days, so anyone who comes down with a cold should stay home for at least that amount of time. After that, the runny nose then becomes thicker and darker, and nasal congestion can develop creating that “stuffed up” feeling. Dark colored nasal secretions do not mean that an infection has developed. That is simply how colds run their course.

By the fourth or fifth day of a cold, a cough may develop. Fevers are uncommon for adults with colds, but children may experience them. Cold symptoms last around one week. Children often appear to have worse cold symptoms than adults.

Cold Symptoms

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Congestion
  • Watery eyes
  • Possible mild fever (mostly in children)
  • Minor aches and pains
  • Slight fatigue and weakness
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Mild to moderate coughing

Do I have the flu?

In general, the flu has more severe symptoms than a cold. It is associated with a sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches, muscle soreness, congestion and a cough. Some variants of the flu are associated with vomiting and diarrhea, but this is most common in children. Flu symptoms can improve starting from two to five days, but the body can feel run down for over a week. It’s important to remember that not everyone with the flu has a fever.

Flu Symptoms

  • Fever (100-102 F or higher) that lasts for three to four days
  • Headache
  • Moderate to severe aches and pains
  • Two to three weeks of fatigue and weakness
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Occasional stuffy nose
  • Occasional sneezing
  • Occasional sore throat
  • Moderate to severe chest discomfort and coughing
  • Diarrhea, vomiting and\or nausea (most common in children)

You Should See a Doctor...

  • If a cold lasts longer than one week with congestion and headaches. This could be a sign of a sinus infection or allergies.
  • If you experience shortness of breath and a fever that returns after two or three days of not having a fever. These are all signs of pneumonia. 
  • If you have a fever for more than three days. This is a sign of an infection. Adults should see a doctor if they have a fever higher than 103 F or a fever with sweating, chills and a cough. Children should go to the doctor if they have a fever that often goes above 104 F or lasts for more than three days. Newborns up to 12 weeks should see a doctor if they have a fever over 100.4 F. In children younger than 2, a fever that lasts longer than 24 hours should be investigated by a physician.
  • If you experience severe discomfort when you swallow, you might have strep throat. Swollen glands are also an indication that additional medical attention is needed.
  • If a cough doesn’t go away for two or three weeks, this may be bronchitis, a sinus infection or asthma.
  • If you experience severe sinus pain.
  • If your child is vomiting, suffering from abdominal pain, has a stiff neck, is persistently crying, has ear pain or is persistently coughing.

See a doctor immediately if you experience:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Severe headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Continuous vomiting

Your child should see a doctor immediately if they experience:

  • Trouble breathing, rapid breathing
  • Blue-colored skin or lips
  • Dehydration
  • Not interacting normally
  • Irritability or distress
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Fever and rash

Stop the Flu!

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months should get the flu vaccine. It’s especially important to get the vaccine if you live with someone who will have a high risk of complications if they get the flu (young children and the elderly). The flu vaccine is available at the start of the flu season and can be given at any time during the flu season, even into January and beyond.

The CDC and FDA closely monitor the flu vaccine. Even though reports have been released saying that the flu vaccine is not as effective this year, vaccines are still necessary and also still effective in preventing some types of the flu. The strains of the flu change every year and scientists must predict which strains will be most prevalent. This year, there was a mutation to one of the viruses that scientists did not expect.

The flu causes 4,900 – 52,000 deaths annually, according to CDC estimates. Even if you haven’t been vaccinated before, getting a flu shot will reduce your chances of getting the flu, plus lessen the severity of any virus you do catch, including the flu and colds.

To get your flu shot, use our Find a Doctor tool and make an appointment today!