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Coughs, colds, sore throats, ears or sinuses - When to see a GP

Dated: 28-Nov-17

Colds and most coughs, sinusitis, otitis media, sore throats, ear and other infections often get better without antibiotics, as your body can usually fight these infections on its own. The table below shows you how long these illnesses normally last, what you can do to ease your symptoms and when you should go to see your GP or contact NHS services.

Illness Usual length of illness
Middle ear infection 4 days
Sore throat 7 days
Common cold 10 days
Sinusitis 18 days
Cough or bronchitis 21 days

What you can do to ease the symptoms:

  • Have plenty of rest
  • Drink enough fluids to avoid feeling thirsty
  • Ask your local pharmacist to recommend medicines to help your pain or other symptoms (or both)
  • Fever is a sign the body is fighting the infection and usually gets better by itself in most cases
  • You can use paracetamol (or ibuprofen) if you or your child is uncomfortable as a result of a fever

When should you (or your child) go to the Dr’s?

The first eight of these are potentially signs of serious illness and should be assessed urgently.

Telephone for advice if you are uncertain about the urgency.
  • If you develop a severe headache and are vomiting
  • If your skin is very cold or has a strange colour, or you develop an unusual rash
  • If you feel confused or have slurred speech or are very drowsy
  • If you have difficulty breathing. Signs that suggest breathing problems can include:
    • breathing quickly
    • turning blue around the lips and the skin below the mouth
    • skin between or above the ribs getting sucked or pulled in with every breath
  • If you develop chest pain
  • If you have difficulty swallowing or are drooling
  • If you cough up blood
  • If you are feeling a lot worse

Less serious signs that can usually wait until the next available GP appointment:

  • If you are not improving by the time given in the 'Usual length of illness' column
  • Children with middle ear infection: if fluid is coming out of their ears or new hearing problems

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