When should I see a doctor for a cold or flu?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

If you are in one of the high-risk groups, and are experiencing the symptoms of influenza, you should talk to your doctor. These groups include young children, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and those with diabetes, heart disease, HIV, asthma, and other chronic conditions. Your doctor may want you to take antiviral medications.

Anyone who begins to experience symptoms of pneumonia, a serious complication that can arise from influenza, should see the doctor. These symptoms may include a severe cough, high fever, breathing problems, blood or pus in the sputum, and pain when you take a breath. Other complications of the flu may include sinus or ear infections and bronchitis; you may wish to see a doctor if these develop.

If you are generally healthy, are not pregnant and don't have a high risk for flu complications, you don't need to call your doctor for flu symptoms. Watch as internal medicine specialist Keri Peterson, MD, explains the best ways to treat the flu.

Dr. Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Practitioner

Flu symptoms suggesting medical consultation is necessary are:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Breathing with grunting or wheezing sounds
  • Labored breathing (in a child, rib muscles retract)
  • Abdominal pain (more common in children)
  • Changes in behavior or mental status, such as disorientation or not being alert
  • Persistent diarrhea or vomiting (more common with children), especially if unable to hold down sufficient fluids
  • Persistent fever above 103 degrees for three days
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For most adults, the flu is a self-limiting disease and typically requires only supportive care such as taking in plenty of fluids and using over-the-counter medications for symptom relief such as fevers, cough or congestion. If you are in close contact with the elderly (more than 65 years old) or children less than 2 years old, you may need to be tested for your flu strain so that they can be given medicine to prevent them from getting the flu. The very old and the very young are at increased risk for complications when getting the flu.

Most cold and flu symptoms will get better on their own with time and rest. But for some symptoms, it's wise to see a doctor. A doctor can make sure nothing is seriously wrong, prescribe medicine if needed, and give suggestions to help you feel better. Here are some tips for when to call.


  • For babies younger than 90 days (3 months): 100.4 degrees F or more
  • For babies 90 to 180 days old (3-6 months): 101.0 degrees F or more
  • For children 6 months and older: a high fever (103.0 degrees F or higher), and the child seems sick
  • Any fever that lasts 2 days or more and is not improving


  • Coughing in a baby that makes it difficult to eat or sleep, especially if the baby is younger than 6 months
  • Coughing that sounds like a seal barking and interferes with breathing
  • Coughing that starts suddenly and goes for an hour without stopping
  • Cough with wheezing (whistling sound when you breathe in or out)
  • Coughing with any difficulty breathing or with chest pain
  • Coughing that lasts longer than three weeks

Runny, stuffy nose:

  • Stuffy nose that isn't improving by 10 days or gone by 3 weeks
  • Stuffy nose with other symptoms that seem severe (like a high fever, ear pain, or cheek pain)

Ear pain:

  • Ear pain with fever or that interferes with sleep and activities
  • Ear pain without fever that is not improving after 2 days (you may give ibuprofen for the ear pain)

Sore throat:

  • Sore throat without other typical cold symptoms
  • Sore throat with fever, headache, stomachache, rash, or vomiting
  • Sore throat that is so severe that it's hard to swallow
  • Severe sore throat that seems worse than you'd expect with a cold

Breathing problems:

  • Unusually fast or shallow breathing
  • Distress with breathing
  • Skin between the ribs or below the throat pulling in with each breath
  • Bluish color in the lips or fingernails
Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

If you have symptoms of the flu, go to the doctor as soon as possible. He or she may test you for the influenza virus, although usually it's not necessary because flu symptoms are enough to make a diagnosis. If flu is diagnosed early enough, your doctor may give you an antiviral medication to speed up your recovery.

A call to a healthcare professional will be needed if the following signs or symptoms of flu develop:

  • fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher that does not go down within two hours of home treatment
  • fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by shaking chills and a productive cough (a wet, loose cough)
  • persistent fever (102 degrees Fahrenheit over two full days, 101 degrees Fahrenheit over three days, 100 degrees Fahrenheit over four days)
  • labored, shallow and rapid breathing
  • mucus from the lungs that is yellow, green, rust-colored or bloody
  • facial pain
  • continued or increasing nasal discharge regardless of color for over 7 days
  • productive cough for more than seven to ten days
  • fussy child with no appetite
  • infant or toddler who tugs at his or her ears or cries whenever lying down
  • infant or toddler who refuses to eat or drink

The biggest thing during cold and flu season is prevention: washing your hands and getting your flu and pneumonia shots. If you do feel sick, watch for those symptoms that signal something more than the common cold: fever, chills, muscle aches, joint aches, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

Most people will get sick one to three times during the cold and flu season. Check in with your doctor if you're concerned.

Dr. Susan S. Blum, MD
Preventive Medicine Specialist

The flu is usually treatable at home, but a couple of severe symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor. Preventive and functional medicine specialist Dr. Susan Blum talks about these red flags in this video.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.