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Should You Go to the Doctor If You Have A Cold?

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Should You Go to the Doctor If You Have A Cold?

Jan 11, 2024

Should you go to the doctor for a cold? It’s a pretty common question. After all, colds can be miserable and who wouldn’t want to feel better? Find out if a trip to your physician's office is worth it. Internal medicine physician Tom Miller, MD, talks about things you can do to make a cold more bearable and if antibiotics can help make you feel better.

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    Interviewer: So the question is if you get a cold, should you go to the doctor? Or is that something you can just kind of handle by yourself at home? Dr. Tom Miller from University of Utah Health. If I get a cold, should I come see you?

    What is a Cold?

    Dr. Miller: Most of the time if you have a cold, you don't need to see a doctor about that. So what is a cold? That's the next question. A cold is generally a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat, perhaps a sore throat and a mild cough without fever.

    Interviewer: Without fever? Colds don't have fevers?

    Dr. Miller: Not generally. Or if there is a fever, it's low-grade, meaning that it's less than 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have that, you likely have a viral cold that will take its time to heal in the next three to six days, and you don't really need to see a physician for that.

    When to See a Doctor for a Cold

    What you should see a physician for is if you have shortness of breath, if you have chest pains, if you have difficulty breathing, or if you have a high fever. Of course, then, you probably need to be seen, and it could be something that is not just due to the common cold. By and large, when people develop a cold, they're talking about a viral cold that does not include fever or all the other things that I mentioned. It's uncomfortable, but we don't yet have a vaccine to prevent the common cold. By the way, there are many common cold viruses, so we'd have to have multiple vaccines to treat them.

    Antibiotics for Colds

    Interviewer: So, really, there's not a shot you can give me? Like, some antibiotics or something?

    Dr. Miller: It used to be that people would come in all the time to the doctor's office, and they would get antibiotics for something that was caused by a virus. And in 95% of cases, it doesn't treat a virus, and the cold goes away in three to six days.

    Interviewer: So why couldn't you just give me antibiotics just in case?

    Dr. Miller: Well, a lot of people used to ask for that even when we said it wouldn't help them. The problem with giving people antibiotics unnecessarily is that we develop resistance to bacteria that we might need to use that antibiotic against in the future. That could really be a problem for us. And we've now developed strains of certain bacteria that thrive when someone takes an antibiotic. You could develop a diarrheal illness that goes on and on and on after taking antibiotics. So it's not a good idea to use antibiotics if you don't need them. If you go to the doctor's office and he tells you that you have a cold, please don't ask for antibiotics.

    Home Remedies for Colds

    Interviewer: Anything else if one gets a cold that they could do at home since it sounds like going to the doctor probably isn't going to help me?

    Dr. Miller: Basically, one can take Tylenol four times a day to alleviate the discomfort of having a scratchy throat. You can gargle. You can use saline nasal spray, and sometimes people can use decongestants or antihistamines. They may help. But in general, you just kind of have to tough it out.


    updated: January 11, 2024
    originally published: January 15, 2014