What I Do When I’m Sick

My cold seems to be going away, which is nice, but it’s still circulating at work. Although I used to be an infectious disease specialist, I don’t normally worry too much about “germs,” especially colds and the flu. In contrast, I’ve noticed others in the office seem to obsess over avoiding these common illnesses. They give a wide berth to anyone sneezing or sniffling, use hand sanitizers often, talk frequently about what’s “going around,” and urge the sick ones to “see the doctor.” I just try to be prudent (without being obsessive) get the flu shot, and live a healthy lifestyle. But as the bumper sticker says “Sick Happens.”

So I was ill. What did I do about it? One thing I did not do was call a doctor. (Of course I am a doctor, but that’s not my point) Why call a doctor for a cold? A cold is a benign condition with no curative treatment, and helpful medications are available over-the-counter. I gave myself “supportive care,” including rest, increased fluid intake, oral and nasal decongestants, acetaminophen and nasal irrigation. And I recovered over about ten days or so. No doctor, no antibiotics and virtually no expense.

I believe we over-medicalize things in America.  It’s become normal to access the healthcare system for anything and everything giving us trouble, even little things. But is that helpful? Truth is, most symptoms of all sorts resolve on their own. Colds, upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) and even sinusitis do not require antibiotics or and treatment beyond what you can do for yourself. Also it’s interesting that (it seems to me) the very same folks who worry so much about a cold, which won’t kill them, don’t worry about their many extra pounds and related lifestyle diseases, which will. No one talks much about diabetes at the office.

Of course sometimes when you’re sick you should see a doctor right away. If you have serious warning signs, for example difficulty breathing with a cold or flu, you need medical attention to rule out a more serious illness such as pneumonia. But most colds aren’t like that. What I typically do is simply give myself supportive care and monitor my situation closely. If I am still getting worse or continue to have fever on the fourth or fifth day of the illness, then I think about seeing a doctor.

Obviously you must decide for yourself when to seek medical attention, but it’s worth taking the time to think through this in advance. Develop your own guidelines before the next URI. Perhaps you could ask your doctor or the office staff for their thoughts about when to come in and when to practice self-care.  Your physicians will probably agree that most office visits for colds or URIs aren’t really necessary. Why not focus less on common benign conditions like colds, and worry less about germs, in order to put more of your energy into addressing any serious threats to your health from your lifestyle?  It will make you and your doctor happy.


  1. Great advice Dr. Weiss. Glad I came over from LinkedIn and took the time to read this. Have a great day.

  2. Cynthia Anderson says:

    I also agree Dr. Weiss with your discussion on self care. Being asthmatic I will visit my doctor if there is a respiratory issue. But this year I have tried exercising 20 each week-day morning and found that to help in a lot of ways especially with my colds. I believe my lungs are stronger. So far this year, I may have contacted a cold, but seems to have prevented it being accompanied by an asthma attack. Not sure this will continue to be the case, but it is for now. YEAH!

    • Peter Weiss says:

      Hi Cynthia. “YEAH” is right! I am happy that things are going well for you and that you are helping yourself to be well. I belive that one of our big problems in healthcare is that we expect doctors to “fix” things for us. Often there is a lot that we can do ourselves. Thank you for sharing your story.