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Suffering from a cold on the couch.

When to see a doctor for a cold

What are the signs you should see a doctor for a cold? While most cold viruses can be treated with home remedies, there are some cases in which you should see a doctor.

“If you are reaching the 10-day mark of a cold and are not feeling any better, you should see your doctor,” says Christine Kirlew, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont. “Most cold viruses last seven to 10 days, so if it lasts longer than that, it could be a bacterial infection and require antibiotics.”

If you have pain when breathing, shortness of breath, tightness in your chest or wheezing, you should see your doctor right away. If you still have the following symptoms after 10 days, see your doctor:

“The majority of upper respiratory infections are caused by a virus,” she explains. “But if someone is having shortness of breath or pain when they breathe in, I may recommend a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia. If they have a productive cough without shortness of breath, I’m less worried about pneumonia.”

Can a cold develop into a more serious illness?

Dr. Kirlew says a cold can start as a virus and then develop into a “superimposed infection,” where bacteria infect the upper respiratory tract. This can lead to a sinus infection or pneumonia, which require antibiotics.

“Babies, older adults, people who are immunocompromised due to medications or disease, and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma are more susceptible to complications from a cold,” she says.

How to treat a cold at home

If you have a cold, Dr. Kirlew recommends trying home remedies for the first seven to 10 days if you don’t have serious symptoms like wheezing, chest pain or shortness of breath. She suggests over-the-counter treatments like:

  • Cough suppressant. Over-the-counter cough medicine or cough drops can help relieve constant coughing.

  • Saline rinse. “A saline rinse will cleanse the nasal passages and throat,” she explains. “Studies strongly indicate that using a saline rinse can reduce the duration of a sinus infection.”

  • Fever reducer. An over-the-counter medication like Tylenol can help if you have a fever.

You can also help relieve symptoms and boost your immune system with the following:

  • Consume vitamin C.Vitamin C can help dry you out when you have a cold,” she says.

  • Get plenty of rest. Resting at home can help your immune system fight off the virus. It’s harder to battle an illness when your body is rundown.

  • Stay hydrated. “If you don’t feel like eating much, try to drink plenty of fluids or eat soup if that helps you feel better,” she says.

Avoid spreading a cold to others

Avoid giving your cold to others by practicing the following tips:

  • Clean your hands. Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

  • Cough or sneeze courteously. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crook of your arm, not onto your hands

  • Stay home. Avoid going to work or out in public until you are better. You are contagious the first week you have symptoms.

Dr. Kirlew practices at Piedmont Physicians Buckhead, located at 35 Collier Road Northwest, Suite 775, Atlanta, GA 30309. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Kirlew or another primary care physician online. Save time, book online.

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