Laura Santoro, MD, MPH, delivers tips on battling the cold, cough season

MARQUETTE — With the cold and cough season fully upon us, it’s important to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of germs. But if you’re unfortunate enough to contract a sickness and wondering when it’s time to go to a doctor, there are signs you can look for to decide what your next step should be.

If you feel the need for a visit, you have three options you can take: see your primary care doctor, enter a walk-in clinic and go to an emergency room.

Laura Santoro, MD, MPH, explains the difference between the three.

Primary Care and Walk-In Clinics

Your primary care doctor is a solid option because of the familiarity your doctor has with you. They already see you, know the medication you may be taking and understand your medical history. And since most of the clinics within UPHS are patient-centered medical homes, the clinics set aside some same-day appointments for their patients.

“We would be the first person to go to when you’re sick,” Dr. Santoro said. “We like to take care of our patients. If you’re sick, we want you to come in and see us first so that we can give you the advice you need to keep you healthy.”

As for walk-in clinics, those are options when you aren’t able to meet with your primary care doctor or if it’s after hours and you’re not able to be seen.

Emergency room

Due to the case-by-case nature of each individual, Dr. Santoro notes that there are no hard guidelines to go by when it comes to deciding if it’s time for someone to make an emergency trip to the hospital. However, if you have the symptoms of a common cold, the emergency room may not be your best option.

“I used to work in the emergency department to make extra money during my residency,” Dr. Santoro said. “We saw a lot of people who had common cold symptoms. It is frustrating for patients to wait in the emergency room and also can slow down care for people with true emergencies.”

Wearing a mask during your hospital visit can prevent the spread of disease.

Make a call

Of course, if you’re unsure about any of your symptoms and questioning whether a trip may be worth it, you can always call the office of your primary care doctor. Nurses may be able to assist you in helping you decide your next step.

“If you have a question about your health and already have a doctor, we have nurses who you can call and ask if it would be helpful to come in,” Dr. Santoro said. “They triage patients all the time, so they can talk to you about your symptoms and concerns.”

“Most common colds are viral illnesses where you might have congestion, post-nasal drip, cough, mild body ache or low-grade fever. A low-grade fever is elevated 1 or 2 degrees above your normal temperature, generally under 101 degrees. Those sorts of responses in your body are actually your immune system trying to fight off the virus. With these symptoms, even if you come into your primary care doctor, we’ll often recommend supportive care.”

“If your fever is higher and not coming down with Tylenol or ibuprofen, if you are feeling short of breath, have severe ear pain on one side, severe sore throat, chest pain or any symptoms that seem out of the realm of a normal cold, then come right in. We’re always very happy to see you to help prevent progression of your illness.”

Other tips from Dr. Santoro

• Don’t become too concerned if your cold lasts longer than a week.

“A lot of people will think a cold will last a week, and if it lasts more than a week, I should go to my doctor. But actually many cold viruses will take four or five weeks to go away. The main time to come in is if during that time your symptoms seem to change or worsen, as bacterial infections can sometimes complicate a viral illness.”

• Wash your hands and cough into the crook of your elbow to prevent the spread of disease

“A lot of the cold and cough viruses are spread via airborne transmission, so you want to be careful to not spread disease that way. If you come into the doctor’s office, walk-in, or ER and you have a cold-like symptom, please wear a mask. That’s really key because we see a lot of patients — especially ones in the early cough and flu season that come in — and do not think of putting on a mask. It puts all the other patients at risk. Washing your hands often also will help prevent you from getting ill.”

• How to treat your sickness from home

“There are a lot of over-the-counter treatments that you can use to treat colds and coughs. Depending on your medical condition, ibuprofen or Tylenol can help bring your fever down and help with aches and pains that come with fighting off a virus.”

“Honey is a really good remedy to help a cough. They’ve done a lot of studies on it, even comparing it to over-the-counter cough syrup. It has been shown to have really good efficacy in preventing cough symptoms.”

“When I get sick, I lay by a humidifier to help minimize irritation of my throat from postnasal drip.

“Nasal steroid sprays or saline sprays may help minimize inflammation inside your nose that can lead to postnasal drip and cough.

“For severe congestion, you may consider using pseudofed to relieve your symptoms, but for people with high blood pressure, this is not a safe option.

“Self-care is very important – Rest, fluids, a healthy diet and old-fashioned TLC is always a good idea.” 

• Get a flu shot

“I think it’s important people get their flu shot. It’s one of the biggest tools we have to try to prevent illness. Even if you’re young and healthy and think that you never get the flu and don’t need the flu shot, it’s really important that you do that. Not only to protect yourself, but also to protect children, the elderly and those who cannot get the flu shot themselves. With immunizations, there is strength in numbers – there is a concept called herd immunity, where it has been shown that if everyone gets their immunizations it helps protect a whole community.

“When I was in residency, I even saw people in their 20s in the hospital who were very sick with influenza. They thought it would never happen to them, but the flu can affect anyone.”

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