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Self-Treat? Or See a Doctor?

When you’re sick, knowing whether you should treat yourself at home or see your doctor can save you time and hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars a year.

For example, you could treat a head cold by taking a $6 over-the-counter (OTC) medication for congestion and cough. The bill just for walking in the door of your doctor’s office could be $50 to $80 or more. Even if you only have to pay $10 to $20 in co-pay for an office visit, using an OTC medication still saves you -- not only money, but also time.

These tips can help you decide when to self-treat and when to seek medical care.

Treat at home

Many minor illnesses can be safely treated at home: a cold, influenza, uncomplicated diarrhea, mild stomachaches and headaches, and minor skin rashes and skin fungal infections. You can treat these by getting extra rest and taking appropriate OTC medications.

These are cases in which you can probably treat yourself:

  • You don’t have a chronic illness or other condition for which you are taking medications

  • You’re not very sick

  • Your symptoms are mild and familiar and haven’t been going on for very long

  • You ask your pharmacist for advice on which OTC medications to take

See a doctor

You do need a doctor’s care at times, even for everyday health problems.

Times when you should see or speak with a doctor:

  • You have a chronic illness or other condition.

  • A cold, the flu, or a stomachache that’s getting worse even though you’re resting and taking OTC medicine

  • Unusual symptoms that are painful or worrisome

  • A sinus infection, a bad sore throat with a fever, or other symptoms you think may require antibiotics

  • Diarrhea or constipation for longer than a week, bloody diarrhea, or diarrhea with mucus

  • Joint pain that’s chronic and affects your normal activities, or joint pain along with redness or swelling of the joint

  • Back pain that’s chronic or accompanied by pain that travels down your leg or arm

  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and depression lasting for at least two weeks

  • An injury you can’t treat yourself but that’s not an emergency

If you decide to see your health care provider, make the most of the visit by giving your doctor a list of your symptoms, including when they began, how they’ve changed, and if anything you eat or do makes them worse. Doing so can help your provider diagnose and treat you appropriately.