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Cold, Flu, and Sinus Symptoms: Do You Need an Appointment?

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When colds, influenza, (‘the flu’), and sinus symptoms make their yearly rounds, one of the most common questions we hear is, “Do I need to come in for an appointment?” More often than not, you don’t. Usually your best course of action is to stay home and take care of yourself.

What do I have, anyway?

Is it a cold, influenza, sinusitis, or something else like bronchitis? Making the distinction can be tricky, even for an expert clinician. That’s because all of these illnesses have overlapping symptoms (sore throat, cough, runny nose, sinus congestion, headache, weakness, muscle aches, and fever) and you might have more than one condition simultaneously. The culprit is almost always a virus, so doctors often refer to these illnesses using the umbrella term “Viral Upper Respiratory Infection” or “Viral URI,” and a more precise diagnosis is usually unnecessary. As a general rule, colds are fairly mild but the symptoms can last several weeks, whereas influenza tends to be much more severe but rarely lasts more than a few days. Both colds and flus can cause sinus symptoms and/or the nagging cough of bronchitis.

Do I need to be seen?

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, severe coughing fits, or coughing up blood, pain in an unusual location (such as your eye, ear, or tooth), high fevers (over 103° F), trouble drinking fluids or any symptoms lasting longer than two weeks, or if you have other chronic health problems, we recommend you make an appointment so we can check you for other conditions. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly recover quickly and completely from an upper respiratory infection without any treatment, so you don’t need to see us.

So what can I do to feel better?

1) Sleep. Your best weapon against these vexing viruses is your own immune system, which works best when you’re sleeping. Try to get 10 or more hours of restful sleep a day to help combat the virus.

2) Drink water. Without water, your immune system cannot function optimally. And when you’re sweating, breathing heavily and blowing your nose every thirty seconds, you’re at risk for becoming dehydrated. So if you’re sick, you need to drink plenty of water, just as you would if you were exercising. You know you’re drinking enough water if your urine is clear, not yellow.

3) Avoid stresses to your immune system. Avoid smoking (and secondhand smoke), drinking alcohol, exercising strenuously, or working long hours. These will only prolong your illness.

Which over-the-counter remedies should I take?

The answer depends on your symptoms. Many over-the-counter products combine various ingredients described below, enabling you to choose the one that best suits your needs.

Headache: acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)

Fever: acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)

Runny Nose/Post-Nasal Drip: antihistamines (e.g. Claritin, Zyrtec, Benadryl) and/or pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed)

Sinus Congestion: nasal rinses with Neti pot or similar device (e.g. Nasaline) and/or pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed)

Sore Throat: hard candies, lozenges, salt water gargles, acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)

Cough: this can one of the most difficult symptoms to control. Eliminating post-nasal drip (see above) is an important first step. Dextromethorphan (found in most varieties of Robitussin and similar products) can also be moderately helpful. If you are having severe coughing fits despite these measures, let us know.

But wait, can’t you give me something?

Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses, so conventional antibiotics are ineffective. In rare cases, however, bacteria are responsible and antibiotics can be helpful. We have a few other tools in our shed, too, so if you’ve tried everything described above but you’re still feeling poorly, come see us. (Please note that the color of your mucus is NOT an accurate predictor of whether you have a bacterial infection.)

And of course, don’t forget to come in for your annual flu shot. It’s the single-most effective thing you can do to avoid getting influenza. Check our Influenza FAQ page for more information.

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