When to see your doctor

When should you see your doctor?

The decision to see your doctor about a particular problem is not always easy. Many people worry that they may be wasting the doctor's time with something that is trivial or likely to get better by itself. This can be an especially difficult decision when children are unwell.

There are no hard and fast rules about what can be ignored and what needs to be seen by your doctor, but these guidelines might help.

Colds and flu

Most children will get 4 to 6 colds a year. These are known as upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) and are commonly caused by viruses. The symptoms, which can include a slight temperature, a cough and a runny nose, usually improve after several days.

Treatment is aimed at relieving these symptoms with things such as rest, drinking plenty of fluids and medicines such as paracetamol. Most of the time your doctor is not needed, unless:

  • the child seems particularly unwell, with drowsiness, difficulty with breathing, poor appetite or lack of interest in things;
  • the symptoms last for more than a few days;
  • there is a bad headache or earache; or
  • a raised temperature does not respond to paracetamol.

Other symptoms

Tummy ache is another common childhood symptom that causes concern. Most of the time tummy aches are not serious and there is no obvious cause, but they should not be ignored if they are associated with persistent vomiting, diarrhoea or loss of appetite.

Symptoms adults should not ignore

For adults, the decision to see their doctor is usually easier. As we get older most of us experience vague aches and pains, particularly if we've been doing some different activity, and these can usually be ignored unless they restrict normal activities or last longer than a day or two. Symptoms that adults must not ignore include:

  • pains in the chest, especially if associated with exercise;
  • any new or noticeable lump anywhere on the body;
  • change in an existing mole or freckle;
  • abnormal bleeding of any sort;
  • change in bowel habit; and
  • unintended loss of weight.

These lists are by no means comprehensive. Remember, it is always better to have gone to your doctor with any concerns you may have too soon, rather than too late.

Check-ups

Keep in mind that you can see your doctor for routine check-ups when you are feeling well. During these appointments, your doctor can conduct health checks and discuss screening tests appropriate for your age (e.g. cholesterol blood tests, Pap tests and bowel cancer screening tests).

These appointments also provide an opportunity to discuss your lifestyle and address anything that may be harming your health, such as smoking, as well as addressing disease prevention measures such as making sure that your immunisations are up to date.

Last Reviewed: 29 July 2014
Your Doctor. Dr Michael Jones, Medical Editor.

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References

1. Merck Manual Home Health Handbook. When to see a doctor (updated May 2007). http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/fundamentals/making_the_most_of_health_care/when_to_see_a_doctor.html (accessed Jun 2014).
2. National Prescribing Service (NPS). What are the medicines and treatments for a cold? (published 10 May 2013). http://www.nps.org.au/conditions-and-topics/conditions/respiratory-problems/respiratory-tract-infections/for-individuals/conditions/common-cold/for-individuals/medicines-and-treatments (accessed Mar 2014).
Dr Michael Jones

Dr Michael Jones

Medical Editor, Your Doctor.