13th December, 20194 min read

When to see a doctor for a cold

Last reviewed: 13/12/2019
Medically reviewed

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If you have a runny nose, a cough or a sore throat, there's a good chance you’ve got a cold.

Colds are a common problem - the average adult catches 2 to 4 of them every year.

And statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that colds are the main reason why people miss work or school.

Most colds are mild and clear up on their own. However, the viruses that cause colds can sometimes spread to other parts of your body, so it’s important to know when to reach out to a doctor.

In this article, you’ll learn what to expect from a normal cold and how to spot the signs of a serious complication.

What to expect when you catch a cold

The symptoms of a common cold tend to develop over 1 or 2 days. You may have a runny or blocked nose, a sore throat or a cough. You may also suffer from:

  • earaches
  • sneezing
  • a mild fever

These symptoms are all typical of a common cold, so try not to worry too much. Most colds go away on their own, and there’s no need to visit a doctor unless:

your symptoms last for 3 or more weeks
you develop signs of a complication (see below)
you already have a medical condition like diabetes or heart disease

There’s often very little a doctor can do to help you with a common cold. Antibiotics and antihistamines don't help your body to fight off a viral infection, so rest and self-care are generally the most effective ways to manage your symptoms.

Why don’t doctors prescribe antibiotics for a cold?

Antibiotics help to fight off bacterial infections, but as the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them also contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections, which increases the risk of antibiotics not working when you need them.

Avoiding winter pressures

Doctors tend to be even more busy during cold and flu season. According to the British Medical Association (BMA), doctors in the UK struggle to keep up with the demand for appointments during the winter months, so you may find it easier to treat a cold at home. However, this should not stop you from going to see a doctor if you have any worrying symptoms.

When to see a doctor about your cold

So, when should you go and see a doctor about a cold?

According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), common red flags include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • severe headaches

You should also watch out for any sign of confusion or drowsiness, a fever or coughing up blood.

Shortness of breath, fever or difficulty breathing can indicate a chest infection like pneumonia or bronchitis. These conditions are serious and may need to be treated with a course of antibiotics, so it’s best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Alternatively, a high temperature with muscle aches and pain can be a sign that you’ve got the flu.

A severe headache with or without a fever can be a sign that you’ve developed sinusitis, a relatively common illness that occurs when the infection spreads to your sinuses.

Smokers, young children and people with a weakened immune system have an increased risk of complications, so monitor your symptoms if you fall into one of these categories.

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