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When It's Really Time to See a Doctor


Art Credit: Noah Sahady

The Internet has made it as easy as a click of the mouse to assess any headache, sore throat, or mysterious pain and self-diagnose to our heart’s content. Although it’s really convenient to find so many medical answers without having to actually step into a doctor’s office, it can also lead to us falling down a rabbit hole of frightening, often incorrect hypotheses about what exactly is wrong with us.

Medicine is an art and science so there's no recipe for "if you have this symptom, then do ____.” Everyone's individual health history and body dictate when and if they should see a doctor, go to the emergency room, or simply sit tight with some ibuprofen. The most important thing you can do for yourself is have a good relationship with a physician. Then the two of you together can decide when you should stay home and get more rest and when you should get dressed, get off the couch, and go to the doctor.

When it comes to your health, there’s no sweeping advice that covers all people. Young women in their twenties are different than those who are middle-aged or pregnant. That said, the tips below will serve as a guide for when you should head to your trusted physician’s office for a checkup.

These are caused by viruses⎯meaning antibiotics won't work. So save your time and money and forget asking your doctor for a prescription. Instead, rest up, drink lots of fluids, and manage your aches and pain with an over-the-counter pain reliever. If you have a cough that’s productive⎯you are coughing up green, brown, or yellow stuff called sputum, or even blood⎯then you need to see a doctor.

Remember we’re talking in terms of adults; kids are a whole different story. If you have a fever that is greater than 101 degrees and doesn't go down for two days, you need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room. But this advice comes with a caveat: If you have medical issues that could complicate having a fever for that long or other symptoms like a rash, sensory changes, lethargy, or darkened urine, you need to see someone sooner.

A headache can be a more severe migraine. It can be caused by stress or exposure to gases or other pungent agents like carbon monoxide. It can also be a symptom of a brain tumor (which people often think of first). Before deciding if your headache is fatal, try to gauge how long it lasts, what triggers it, if anything helps it go away, and the spot on your head where it hurts. These considerations will help a doctor assess the cause and seriousness of the pain. But if your headache is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or you have fallen or hit your head, then you should see a medical professional immediately.

Many of us, especially women, deal with intestinal problems on a daily basis, from constipation, bloating, gas, and diarrhea to IBS and gluten allergies. It is most important to know what is normal for you and your body. (Knowing your body is so important in terms of overall health and wellness!) If something has changed try and recall if you ate something "bad" that could have led to food poisoning. If you have pain that is doubling you over and you can’t stand or you are vomiting, see someone immediately. And if you have bloody diarrhea, it's time to see a doctor. Protracted diarrhea and vomiting (for more than twelve hours) can quickly lead to dehydration, so see a doctor or head to the ER.

It’s important to note that, even with all the recent changes in health insurance, you shouldn’t try to manage your health from home. A few more signs you should definitely call your doctor:

unexplained weight loss
unexplained pain
changes in mental status
pus or discolored drainage from a wound or body site, or foul-smelling
chronic fatigue
generalized rash
darkened urine
chest pain (may warrant a visit to the ER)

Remember not to fear your body or how it feels, but get to know it and understand it. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of your body and health is life-changing and possibly life-saving!

Photo by Taylor McCutchan