Should you see a doctor for your cold?

Should you see a doctor for your cold… bronchitis…pharyngitis…sinusitis… at our Steamboat Springs  or Hayden office?

THE TRUTH IS the majority of fairly rapid onset upper respiratory infections, including most cases of sinus congestion, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and bronchitis are caused by viruses. Viruses (except influenza A and B) defy our ability to alter the course with antibiotics. So “catching it early” won’t make a bit of difference. In fact, during a viral upper respiratory infection, the course of the illness is generally unpredictable.

Despite popular myth, bronchitis is rarely a bacterial infection. It is simply a cold virus that has gone to the upper bronchial tubes and causes a cough. It is often preceded or followed by fever, headache, achiness, sore throat and or sinus congestion. The bronchial airways can be painful for a few short days. Humidity, mucolytics(guaifenesin) and prescription inhalers may be helpful. Bronchitis typically lasts 3 days to 3 weeks.

“Sinus infections” that are rapid in onset (over 2 to 7 days), and especially accompanied by fever, headache, sore throat and cough are generally caused by cold viruses that attack the respiratory cells lining the nose, areas around the sinuses, and back of throat. Symptoms of headache, nasal congestion, runny nose, stuffy nose and copious thin mucus drainage are common. It is a myth that viral infections cause clear discharge, and it is bacterial if it is green. In fact,/ allergies cause copious clear discharge without fever or sore throat. And most cases of “Para sinusitis ll (head colds) start with copious clear drainage. After the immune system kicks in, the virus infected cells lining the respiratory tract must be destroyed. This results in pain, dryness, bleeding and disgusting colors of yellow, green and brown discharge. Fortunately, this usually means a person is in the recovery phase of the illness. The clear majority of head colds resolve between 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the virus type, health of the immune system and health of the host. Two or three episodes a year are common. And young children (especially in daycare) can have up to 6 to 8 episodes a year. They occur year-round but are more common in winter months. Head colds are often accompanied by pharyngitis and bronchitis.

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are sore throats typically experienced in the upper throat area. Lower sore throats that cause pain, hoarseness of voice or “croup” are referred to as laryngitis or tracheal bronchitis. The clear majority of sore throats can feel very miserable, and can also be accompanied by fever, headache, sinus symptoms and bronchitis.

Two major exceptions of sore throat that require antibiotic treatment include strep throat and exudative tonsillitis. Typical signs include pus (exudate)/ redness of upper throat, tonsils and palate, and tonsillar enlargement. Strep throat is common in preschool and grade school children, and may be accompanied by abdominal pain and vomiting. All young children with sore throat, fever and/or abdominal pain with sore throat should be evaluated for strep throat. Teenagers and young adults are more prone to exudative tonsillitis where tonsils and the surrounding tissues are red, swollen and covered with pus. Mononucleosis and adenovirus are common causes. But it is believed that mouth germs (bacteria) can jump in and co-infect like other oral conditions such as gingivitis and tooth abscesses. Therefore, antibiotics are commonly prescribed. Steroids might help reduce swelling and ease pain. These infections must be monitored closely.


Here are some suggestions for when it would be wise to see a physician:

  • Anytime you are concerned about an infection, and want a physician consult.
  • If you are immune compromised, elderly, under 2 years of age, or just getting over another respiratory infection (back to back infections).
  • If you have bronchitis and a history of repeated episodes of bronchitis (more than 3 a year) that last longer than 3 weeks. YOU may have asthma. If you do have asthma, and feel tight and wheezy on your current inhalers, you may need to be evaluated for use of increased steroids or controller agents. If YOU have pleurisy or pain with breathing over your lung areas, it could indicate pneumonia, which is a lower respiratory infection. (Pain in the upper bronchial area is not uncommon with bronchitis in the first few days, but should be evaluated if concerned.)
  • If you have persistent focal pain behind the eye, cheek or teeth especially following an upper respiratory infection, it could be a sign of a sinus infection.
  • If you have ear pain. But it is not uncommon to experience a “plugged ear” due to Eustachian tube dysfunction during a cold. This will not respond to antibiotics and is made worse with altitude changes.
  • If your symptoms last longer than 3 weeks.
  • If you have abrupt onset of high fever, severe body aches, headache. In the winter months, this could be “flu” (influenza A or B)/ especially if accompanied by sore throat and cough. Influenza can be treated if diagnosed within 72 hours. And close contacts can be treated preventively. In the summer, these symptoms could indicate tick fever, west Nile virus or enteroviral infections, to name just a few.
  • If you feel short of breath, very lightheaded or very ill.
  • If you cannot keep down enough fluids and feel your dehydrated.
  • If YOU have lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or other serious health conditions.
  • If despite rest, plenty of fluids and symptom relief measures, your conditions take a turn for the worse.
  • YOU have severe pain with swallowing, compromised ability to breath or drink, or have difficulty speaking due to throat swelling.
  • If YOU have traveled abroad or have had worrisome contact exposures.
  • If you are worried/ and “just want to have it checked out”.

Remember grandma’s advice. If YOU have an upper respiratory infection, your best bet is to try to get as much rest as possible (channel your energy to your immune system), and drink plenty of fluids. Sleep deprivation, outdoor activity especially in cold weather, and altitude changes are likely to result in complications and a worsening of condition.


If you do need to make an appointment/ schedule an appointment with one of the best doctors in Steamboat. We have steamboat pediatrics and steamboat family medicine in one place. We provide a family medical clinic in Hayden, Colorado 3 days a week/ and urgent care in Steamboat Springs in our walk-in clinic 7 days a week. We offer expanded evening hours. Our medical clinic is open on weekends. Our clinic serves pediatrics, adult medicine and family medicine in the Steamboat Springs and surrounding community. Our clinic can triage orthopedic emergencies and we have in house x-ray if needed. We are a primary care medical clinic and an urgent care in Steamboat Springs rolled into one. We are a premier primary care medical clinic for the entire Yampa Valley!

Call the Hayden Clinic at 970-276-4270.

Call the Steamboat Springs urgent care in our 7 day doctor clinic at 970-879-0203.