Respiratory infections are one of the most common infectious illnesses of humanity. The average adult suffers from two to four colds per year, and children often have double that number. In addition to the common cold, influenza, sinus infections, allergies and various other conditions can cause upper respiratory tract symptoms.
Doctor or Not?
Many people suffering from upper respiratory tract symptoms, or watching their children suffer, wonder if they should go to a doctor. In general, if the condition is a common cold following a typical course a doctor visit is unnecessary and unhelpful. Doctors don’t have any medicines to offer that treat colds. Antibiotics do not help with colds. Most medicines that help with colds are readily available over-the-counter in pharmacies and grocery stores.
A typical cold usually occurs between September and May. Symptoms last for up to two weeks. Symptoms include runny nose, congestion, sneezing, coughing, aches and pains, fatigue and generally feeling ill. Children are more likely to develop a fever with a cold. In general, colds run their course and then just go away. A typical cold does not warrant a visit to a doctor.
If the symptoms seem particularly severe or don’t go away after two weeks, consulting a doctor is a good idea. If the patient is having difficulty breathing or swallowing, go immediately to an urgent care center. Very young children, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals may require hospitalization for severe symptoms related to a respiratory tract infection. The following symptoms suggest that an urgent doctor visit is a good idea:
- Very high fever
- Severe symptoms that are worsening
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Extreme lethargy
Sometimes other infections set in during a cold such as sinus infections or bronchitis, and these conditions may respond to antibiotics. If any of the following conditions occur during or immediately after a cold, consult a doctor:
- High fever
- Ear pain
- Sinus pain
- Cough that gets worse as the typical cold symptoms go away
- Flare up of asthma or other chronic breathing condition
Is it Influenza?
Many people worry that their illness is actually influenza instead of a common cold. Influenza is a more severe illness than a cold. In general, colds begin slowly, with a sore throat that gradually proceeds over two or three days to the full spectrum of upper respiratory symptoms. Influenza generally comes on very quickly, often starting with a headache that rapidly, over the course of a few hours, progresses to severe illness. Body aches and pains and fever are more predominant in influenza. If it is influenza, most cases just go away on their own just like colds do. Any of the above “red flags” for seeking urgent medical care apply to influenza cases as well as to common cold cases.