When to Call Your Doctor: Flu, Fever, and Coughing

Getting sick seems inevitable. For some people, colds and coughs are a standard part of life. For most people, a cold or the flu will pass quickly without any serious complications. But how do you know when it’s time to call your doctor if you have the flu, a fever, or a cough?

The flu

The medical word for the flu is influenza. Each year, multiple strains of influenza circulate and make people sick. Most people recover fully in one to two weeks, but many people get seriously ill and need to be hospitalized – estimates are about 200,000 people stay in the hospital every year to treat influenza. Tens of thousands of US citizens die each year from the flu and its complications. 

Normal flu symptoms

Normal flu symptoms typically come on quickly. You may be feeling fine, then suddenly, you feel awful. Your symptoms may include:

  • High fever
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue or feeling tired
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Nasal congestion
  • Headache

Should I call the doctor if I think I have the flu?

If you have flu symptoms, the best time to contact your primary care doctor is within the first two days of symptoms. This is because you may be able to take an antiviral medication to help reduce your symptoms and decrease the number of days you’ll feel sick. Those medications need to be started within 48 hours of the onset of your symptoms to be most effective. 

If you are at high risk for complications of the flu, it’s always a good idea to call your doctor as soon as you think you might have the flu. Tell the office you have flu symptoms and are at high risk, and they may get you in for a visit, prescribe an antiviral medication, or refer you to an urgent care center to be seen.

  • You should always call the doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms.
    • Shortness of breath
    • Wheezing
    • Coughing up thick, green or yellow phlegm
    • A fever higher than 100.4 degrees F
  • Seek emergency care if you are:
    • Having difficulty breathing
    • Choking
    • Having difficulty swallowing
    • Coughing up blood or pink phlegm 

How to treat the flu at home

If you get the flu, you should stay home and rest. You should also stay away from others while you’re contagious so you don’t spread the flu to them. To treat symptoms, try the following:

  • Drink plenty of clear liquids, like water, Gatorade, tea, or broth. 
  • Get lots of rest. Don’t feel bad if you sleep for much of the day and night. It’s a good way to help your body recover.
  • Take over-the-counter medications for body aches, headache, or fever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin).
  • If you have congestion, consider taking decongestants or antihistamines.
  • Use cough drops or a cough suppressant if you have a bothersome cough.

Fever

A fever is a body temperature over 100.4 degrees F. It’s a way for the body to fight off viruses and bacteria that invade it. Fevers also stimulate the body’s inflammatory response, and this response starts working to protect affected areas and prevent the spread of invading viruses and bacteria so the body can begin healing.

While fevers are the body’s natural response to illness, they still may need to be treated. Here are some guidelines for fever care and when to seek medical treatment.

  • If an adult’s temperature is above 102, he or she should call the doctor.
  • Go to the emergency room if fever is accompanied by:
    • Seizures
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Confusion
    • Difficulty waking up
  • If a child’s temperature is 104 or above, take him or her to the emergency room right away.
  • If an adult’s temperature is between 100.4 and 103 F, consider going to urgent care. If you have a fever with the following symptoms, seek care right away:
    • Rash
    • Headache
    • Diarrhea
    • Vomiting

If you have any fever for more than a couple days, even a low-grade temperature, call your doctor. 

How to treat a fever at home

  • Take fever reducing medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. (Please note: You shouldn’t ever give a child aspirin.)
  • Drink lots of fluids or eat popsicles.
  • Take a lukewarm bath.
  • Place a cold washcloth on the forehead.
  • Rest.

Cough

Coughing is a frequent symptom of people who have a cold or the flu. Most coughs will go improve after a week or so and won’t cause any long-term effects. However, a cough can sometimes be a sign of a serious illness, like pneumonia. 

If your cough lasts more than ten days, call your doctor. It’s also important to seek medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms along with a cough:

  • Coughing up thick mucus that is green, yellow, pink, or bloody
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • A fever of more than 100 degrees F
  • A cough that makes it difficult to talk 
  • Chest pain

There are some home care remedies that can help ease your cough and dry throat. If you have a cough, try:

  • Using cough drops
  • Putting honey in tea or eat a spoonful of honey by itself (do not give honey to children under one year of age)
  • Taking a steamy shower or using a vaporizer to add moisture to the air
  • Drinking lots of fluids, especially warm, clear fluids like broth or tea

If you have a cough, don’t smoke and stay away from people who smoke.