You have a cold or the flu—when should you contact your doctor?

The main complications of the flu and the common cold are bacterial infections of the sinuses or lungs (pneumonia). Symptoms of these complications include fever, chills, and yellow, green, or brown sputum or nasal discharge. Children may also develop ear infections (acute otitis media).

It is appropriate to consult your doctor or healthcare professional if you:

  • are a child—any sore throats or coughs should be investigated by a doctor
  • belong to a high-risk group (e.g., people with other medical conditions or weakened immune systems, the elderly, very young children)
  • have a sore throat that lasts more than two days, if it is beefy, red, swollen, and covered with pus
  • have a runny nose that lasts more than 10 days, if the discharge is green or yellow, or if there is severe facial pain or headache
  •  have a cough that lasts more than 7-10 days, or if it is severe with thick green or bloody mucus
  •  have a high fever (higher than 38.5ºC) that lasts more than 4 days
  • have a high fever return within 4-14 days
  • have difficulty breathing
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There are a variety of prescription and non-prescription medications that are useful for relieving symptoms and for controlling pain. Please consult your pharmacist or healthcare professional to determine which medication is the right one for you. Antibiotics are not effective for the flu or a cold unless a bacterial infection develops.

Echinacea and zinc have been studied for treatment of the common cold. Evidence for their effectiveness is debatable.