nobody’s perfect | When should I go to the doctor?

Written by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF . Posted in April

A few weeks after the holidays, and during the up-and-down unseasonably warm and then cold weather, I got the flu. It was terrible. Four days of continuous trips to the bathroom, chills, and fever. I was pretty weak but managed to call my doctor, who prescribed some anti-nausea pills and told me to drink fluids to keep me hydrated and Gatorade to keep my electrolytes at a good level. After about four days, I felt stronger and knew that I was over the flu. And yes, I did get my flu shot.


About two weeks later, I woke up with a terrible cough and my left side felt sore from my night-time hacking. I had a cold/respiratory infection, or whatever. I called my doctor and took over-the-counter cold capsules and drank Robitussin cough syrup. I stayed inside as much as I could, rested, ate chicken soup, and finally my cough was gone. I went to work.

My cough returned, but not with the same severity. I was frustrated. Many people were sick, and this respiratory sickness followed the same pattern: get a cough, get rid of it, get the cough again, and repeat.

Although I did finally get rid of my respiratory whatever-it-was, I knew that I probably was a target for colds, infections, and respiratory stuff because I have a “compromised” immune system due to my multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease. Also, for the last two decades, I have taken medications to tone down my immune system, which has been shown to slow down my MS progression.

I decided to call my doctor in the middle of both my four-day flu and the weeks of congestion. I talked with the office and did get advice on how to try to make both of these maladies go away sooner.

Some friends and I were talking, and we wondered when it’s best to seek outside medical help. I found a pamphlet from Web MD at a grocery store that answered that very question. According to the pamphlet, it’s best to see a doctor for a cold or flu when:

You have trouble breathing or chest pain

Your cold or flu should not make you short of breath or cause your chest to hurt. If that is happening to you, it could be a sign of a more serious problem, such as heart disease, asthma, or pneumonia. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

Your fever does not get better

If it will not go away, it might mean you’ve got another infection in your body that needs treatment. Generally, a fever for an adult is a temperature over 100.4 degrees F.

You cannot keep anything down

Your body needs fluids to work right. If you cannot drink anything without vomiting, you may need to go to your doctor’s office or the hospital to get fluids through an IV.

It hurts to swallow

That is not normal. Although a sore throat can make it hurt a little to swallow, severe pain can be a sign of an infection or injury that needs to be treated by a doctor.

You cannot get rid of your cough

If it does not go away, it is likely due to postnasal drip—mucus that moves from your nose into your throat. It can be treated with antihistamines. However, it could be related to asthma or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Your doctor can tell you what to do for it.

A lasting, severe cough is also the main symptom of whooping cough, a disease that has become more common in many parts of the U.S. Therefore, if you have been hacking away for more than two to three weeks, your doctor may give you a test to see if you have it.

Your congestion and headache will not go away

Colds and allergies that block your nose with mucus can lead to a sinus infection. If your cold medicine does not give you relief, see your doctor for more treatment.

It is probably better to err on the side of caution and see a medical professional. It can save us from some serious suffering, and if an illness is not treated correctly, it might drag on for even more time. It’s better to make a medical visit—which is also good for our peace of mind! I know I felt less anxious that my cough was not something more serious.❦