On the Fence: When to Call your Doctor

We’ve all been on the fence wondering if we should call the doctor or not. Many common accidents and illnesses may not require a visit to the doctor or hospital. However, if you experience unusual symptoms that come on suddenly, last more than a few days, or are more severe than you would expect for the situation, seek medical attention right away. Learn when you should seek care for seven of the most common concerns.

Insect bites or stings. Unless you are allergic, a bug bite or sting should only produce an itchy, red and painful bump for a few days. If you know or suspect a poisonous bug bit you, or you experience serious symptoms following a bite or sting—for example, redness or streaks around the bite, difficulty breathing or swallowing, chest pain, dizziness or persistent nausea—see your doctor right away.

Poison ivy, oak and sumac. It takes 12 to 72 hours after coming in contact with the oil (called urushiol) in poisonous plants before you experience the classic itchy skin and rash, which can last up to a few weeks. Serious symptoms, such as those described under bug bites, need medical treatment. Your doctor will likely prescribe a steroid ointment and an antibiotic if your rash becomes infected.

Infections. You can generally treat minor cuts, hangnails and abrasions at home with an over-the-counter disinfectant and by protecting the wound with a bandage. Keep a close eye on your wound. A break in the skin makes you vulnerable to infection, especially if you got dirt in the cut. See your doctor if the wound is deep or has jagged edges, becomes red or streaked or you have other symptoms, such as a fever.

Blood blisters. They arise from prolonged friction, such as a shoe rubbing on part of your foot. The raised skin of the blister is your body’s way of protecting you. Cover small blisters with moleskin until they heal. You may need to drain a large blister with a sterile needle, antibacterial cream and bandage it until it heals. See your doctor to help drain the blister or if it begins to turn red or ooze pus.

Persistent headaches. Headaches that are frequent, persistent or severe may indicate that something is wrong. See your doctor if you have recurrent headaches, especially if they are accompanied by dizziness, confusion, vomiting, shortness of breath or weakness.

Rashes. Rashes can take many different forms. They can be localized or cover your whole body and can even come and go. If you develop a sudden widespread rash, or a rash with other symptoms such as a fever, it may be the sign of an allergic reaction or infection and you should seek immediate medical attention. Allergic reactions to medications are common, says the American Academy of Dermatology.


Most common health problems, such as colds, bug bites, rashes and minor infections, cause uncomfortable—but not serious—symptoms and go away within a few days with appropriate first aid. If any of these symptoms accompany a seemingly minor injury or illness, it may indicate a serious problem and you should see your doctor promptly.

  • Redness or streaks around an infection or bug bite
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing, or the feeling that your throat is closing
  • Irregular or forceful heartbeat
  • Swollen tongue, lips or face
  • Chest pain
  • All-over rash or sunburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever or chills with a rash
  • A rash that comes on suddenly and spreads rapidly
  • Dizziness
  • Persistent nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain
  • Large blisters or outbreak of small blisters
  • Swelling
  • Headache accompanied by confusion, dizziness or other, seemingly-unrelated symptoms

If you’re ever unsure whether you need medical attention, call your doctor.

First Aid Kit

Buy or make a first aid kit and learn the basics of first aid for minor injuries and non-serious illnesses, such as colds or cuts and scrapes. You can find a complete list of must-have items for a first aid kit at the American Red Cross’s website, but the basics should include:

  • Bandages and dressings
  • Antibiotic cleaners
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Thermometer
  • Anti-diarrheal medicines
  • Antacids for upset stomach

Action Item: Seek prompt medical treatment for any problem that gets worse or does not respond to at-home treatment. If you experience shortness of breath, chest pains or lightheadedness, call 911 or go to the emergency room.