Battling a bug? When to see the doctor

Battling a bug? When to see the doctor

With winter officially upon us, I have been spending many of my office hours as a family doctor discussing the various colors and consistencies of snot. While most of us can readily recognize the symptoms of a viral illness, many people are uncertain as to when they warrant medical attention. In addition, it can be frustrating to wait at a walk-in clinic, immediate care facility or emergency room just to be told that the viral illness you have will not respond to antibiotics.

The majority of upper respiratory illnesses (URI) that you will encounter are caused by viruses. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics, so often our recommendations for treatment aren’t that different from Grandma’s. You should rest, drink plenty of fluids, use saline nasal sprays and vaporizers and take over-the-counter cold medications that have already been deemed safe by your healthcare provider.

However, there are some cases when this may not be enough and a visit may be in order:

Underlying Chronic Illness

If you have chronic illness, especially lung conditions such as asthma or COPD, you may need to seek medical attention sooner, as your symptoms may be more severe. In addition, if you have an illness that affects the functioning of your immune system, including diabetes mellitus, you may have a harder time recovering from an infection and may be more prone to secondary bacterial infections that do require antibiotic treatment.

For similar reasons, the very young and the elderly should be evaluated sooner as well.

Concerning Symptoms

Most URIs will cause congestion, cough, fever, body aches, runny nose, headaches and/or sore throats.

If you are experiencing any of the following in addition to those symptoms, you need to see a healthcare provider:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sustained high fevers
  • Neck pain or neck stiffness

Persistent Symptoms

Often, the symptoms of a viral and bacterial illness can be very similar and sometimes the only way we can tell the difference is time. If your symptoms continue to worsen or do not improve after 5-7 days, you should be evaluated.

If you do seek medical attention, it is important to remember that you may not always need prescription medications for your condition. While we may use antibiotics, steroids, breathing medications or antivirals in some cases, the majority of the time these are not needed and will only provide unnecessary risks with no added benefit.

As a general rule, the CDC advises against antibiotic treatment for colds, bronchitis, sore throats other than strep throat and fluid in the middle ear.

Other important steps you can take to stay healthy this season are washing your hands, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying home from work or school when you are ill and getting your flu, pneumonia and whooping cough vaccinations as indicated.

As with anything, ask your healthcare provider if you have other questions. We are your best resource when it comes to making decisions about your health and a sustained partnership with your primary care provider can help keep you well through these cold months.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Marshall Family Medicine at 304-691-1100. For our Family Medicine walk-in clinic hours, visit


Sydnee McElroy, MD

Dr. McElroy is a board-certified family practice physician with Marshall Family Medicine, a department of Marshall Health, and an assistant professor with the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.