Deciding When to See a Doctor

Should I go to the doctor? Most of us have asked that question at one time or another. Whether it’s a bad cold, a funny-looking mole, or that nagging pain that just won’t got away, it can be hard to know when you should be seen by your doctor. There are no set rules that tell you when to go or when to wait. But some general guidelines might help you the next time you’re trying to decide.

Path to improved health

Below are some common illnesses and problems we may deal with from time to time. Many of them can be managed at home. But sometimes they can progress or change, and then it’s best if they are addressed by a doctor. If you aren’t sure what to do, call your doctor. He or she, or even a nurse in the office, can tell you if you should make an appointment.

Common cold or flu

Many symptoms can be managed with plenty of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medicine. But if you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor:

  • Painful swallowing (more than a sore or dry throat).
  • Earache.
  • A cough that lasts more than 2 or 3 weeks.
  • Persistent or severe vomiting.
  • A fever that doesn’t go down or go away.
  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days or get worse instead of better.


Occasional diarrhea isn’t uncommon. It’s usually harmless and doesn’t mean something is wrong. But there are signs to look for that could indicate a problem. These include:

  • Diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days.
  • Black, tarry stools.
  • Blood in your stool.
  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Signs of dehydration (very dry mouth or skin, fatigue, decreased urination, confusion, or irritability).


We all get headaches every once in a while. They usually go away with rest or over-the-counter medicine. But headache can also be a sign of a serious condition, such as stroke or meningitis. If you have a high fever, stiff neck, confusion, or trouble speaking or walking along with a headache, go to the emergency room. If you have any of the following, schedule an appointment with your doctor:

  • Headaches that are different than normal (more often or more severe).
  • Headaches that get worse or don’t get better after taking over-the-counter medicine.
  • Headaches that keep you from working, sleeping, or participating in activities.

Digestive issues

Digestive issues can include problems in the upper digestive tract (esophagus and stomach) and the lower tract (intestines). If you experience any of the following, call your doctor:

  • Feeling like food is caught in your throat or chest.
  • Heartburn that doesn’t go away, gets worse, or doesn’t get better with medicine.
  • Difficult or painful swallowing.
  • Hoarseness or sore throat that doesn’t go away.
  • Nausea that won’t go away.
  • Vomiting blood or bile (green).
  • Severe or persistent abdominal pain.
  • Constipation or diarrhea that won’t go away.
  • Stools that are black or bloody.

Back pain

Most back pain will go away in a few weeks without treatment. It often gets better by using over-the-counter medicine. You can also apply heat or cold to the area that hurts. But sometimes it’s a sign of a problem. Call your doctor if you experience:

  • Constant pain.
  • Pain that spreads down one or both legs, especially if it goes past your knee.
  • Pain with weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs.
  • Pain plus unexplained weight loss.
  • Pain with swelling or redness on your back.
  • Pain with a fever.

Head injury

Getting a bump on the head could be minor. But it also could cause a concussion. Look for these signs of concussion and call your doctor if you have any of them after hitting your head:

  • Dizziness and balance problems.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Confusion.
  • Concentration and memory problems.
  • Feeling sluggish or foggy.
  • Sensitivity to light or noise.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Mood changes.

Menstrual problems

A woman’s monthly period can have a big impact on her life, especially if there are problems. Call your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Your period suddenly becomes irregular.
  • You don’t have a period for 3 months or more.
  • You have bleeding between periods.
  • You have a period that lasts much longer than usual or is much heavier than usual.
  • You have severe or disabling cramps.

Mental health issues

Mental health is an important part of our overall health and should never be ignored. Having issues with mental health is common and treatable. Call your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these signs of trouble with your mental health.

  • Feelings of depression or sadness that don’t go away.
  • Feeling extreme highs and lows.
  • Having excessive fear, worry, or anxiety.
  • Withdrawing from social interactions.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping.
  • Inability to cope with daily problems.
  • Delusions or hallucinations.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others.

Other symptoms

Some symptoms are hard to categorize, but it’s still important to know if they occur. The following could be signs of a problem that may need be addressed by your doctor:

  • Dizziness or feeling like you are going to faint.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Irregular heartbeats or rapid heartbeats.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Fatigue that won’t go away.
  • Severe sweating, especially cold sweats.
  • Swelling in the ankles or legs.
  • Rash along with a fever (100.4 C or higher).
  • A new or changing mole or other skin change that concerns you.

Things to consider

Most people don’t go to the doctor unless they’re sick or have a problem. But you should start by seeing your doctor when you’re well. By seeing your doctor routinely, you can stay on top of your health. He or she can provide preventive health screenings and monitor your health over time. This allows them to catch diseases early and help you manage them before they progress into more serious conditions.

How often you routinely see your doctor depends on your health. Many doctors recommend you come in once a year for a check-up. But if you have problems or a chronic condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, you will likely be seen more often.

When deciding whether to call the doctor when you’re experiencing symptoms, you should also consider the state of your health and any risk factors you may have. For example, if you have asthma and you get a respiratory infection, you may need to see your doctor sooner than someone who doesn’t have asthma. In addition, if you’re having new symptoms after having a procedure, surgery, immunization, injection, or starting a new medicine, you should call your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • I have a chronic condition. How often should I be seen?
  • What risk factors do I have that could determine whether or not I need to be seen?
  • Are there any specific symptoms I need to watch out for?