When to See a Health Care Provider for the Cold or Flu


The flu season, which typically runs from October through May, has started with a vengeance. In fact, the Virginia Department of Health has reported significant statewide increases in flu incidents over last flu season. The most common flu virus this season is Influenza A (H3N2), a strand that is particularly severe. Our BetterMed clinics have definitely seen an increase in visits from concerned cold and flu patients over the past several weeks, with many suffering from fever, body aches and pains, and nagging coughs. Many are unsure about the seriousness of their illness or whether to seek medical attention.

If you have any grouping of symptoms, or even any one symptom that makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should consider seeking a medical evaluation, ideally in either an urgent care setting, such as BetterMed, or through your primary care physician.

Many patients arrive to our offices unsure about the type of illness that they have. That’s understandable, since both a cold or the flu can present with typical symptoms or have complications. Usually, a cold will include a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, and cough, and sometimes a sore throat. Fevers with colds are less common in adults, more common in children. For these symptoms, we can provide over the counter or prescriptive medications.

If the patient has a sore throat along with other symptoms including a fever, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing, or red and swollen tonsils, they may have strep throat. This is a bacterial infection in the throat and tonsils, common in children, which can be easily treated with a course of antibiotics.

Sometimes, we may suspect pneumonia in patients with severe coughs, wheezing, or paleness. In such cases, we can confirm the diagnosis with x-rays. Once sent home, patients with a cold can find relief for dry, scratchy sore throats with warm liquids, such as chicken noodle soup, or a mix of honey and lemon juice. Taking a shower or sitting in a bathroom filled with steam can help ease an irritating cough. Drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of rest can also provide relief for a cold.

A cold will often run its course, and you’ll get better. This is usually true for the flu as well, but sometimes this virus can require special attention. The flu is very contagious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a significant disease that without adequate care can sometimes lead to complications.

Having worked in emergency rooms for over 10 years, I’ve seen instances where the flu can quickly escalate into more severe respiratory problems like pneumonia as well as sepsis, an infection that can overwhelm the body. Infants, elderly patients, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to such side effects.

A thorough exam will help us determine whether a patient has the flu. Symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches and fatigue. Many often confuse the flu with a stomach or intestinal virus, which is not the same thing, and is more commonly associated with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. For patients with a stomach or intestinal virus, we can prescribe anti-nausea medications, or provide intravenous fluids when dehydration is a concern. Infants and children are more prone than adults to having the flu plus an ear infection. These infections can be painful, but fortunately can be treated with antibiotics.

While not 100% accurate, sometimes a rapid influenza diagnostic test can help determine if the patient has the flu. Even if the test is negative, patients with symptoms such as fever, body aches, runny noses and congestion can benefit from treatment with Tamiflu and other antiviral medications.

Once home, patients with the flu should drink lots of liquids, control their fever by taking Motrin— alternating with Tylenol every four hours—and, as with colds, get plenty of rest. To prevent the further spread of a cold or flu, and to ease your recovery, be sure to stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone and no longer requires the use of fever-reducing medications.