I believe that everyone should have a doctor, but I know that's not going to happen. So for those of you who don't have a doctor, I'm going to recommend that you either 1) get one if you can, or 2) find the number for a local hospital or medical center's telephone triage call center (something like this).
Why? Because if you're sick and you're not sure you need medical care, the best thing to do is to call (as long as it's not an emergency, obviously). Call your doctor's office or the call center, and a trained professional will ask you about your symptoms, how severe they are, and how long they have been happening. You can get personalized, professional advice; all you have to do is ask. It's amazing how many people don't realize that doctors' offices and hospitals will do this!
Let's do some expectations management up front: during flu season, doctor's offices (and, I imagine, call centers) are very busy, and you may be on hold for a long time, or you may have to leave a message and wait several hours for someone to call back. If you think you're too sick to wait for advice, you should get yourself an appointment asap, or take yourself to an urgent care center. But there are a lot of times when you're just not sure what to do, and those are the times when calling can give you an answer.
Before you call, get your ducks in a row. The doctor on call or the nurse will ask you several questions, and it is very helpful if you are prepared. Sometimes just the exercise of answering these questions for yourself can help you recognize whether or not you need medical help.
1) What is/are the main problem(s)? This should be the symptom that finally drove you to call. It's fine to be aware of other things that are going on, but keep the main point up front.
2) How long has this been going on? Has it been the same, improving, getting worse? This is an important detail. ("I've had a fever and a really sore throat for 3 days now, and it's not getting any better.")
3) Now for the supporting information; report anything different from usual:
- do you look different - pale or flushed? Are your eyes droopy, red, glassy?
- how's your energy level? fatigued or wired?
- are you eating, eliminating, and sleeping the same, more, or less than usual?
- other symptoms like fever, coughing, wheezing, headache, neck pain or stiff neck, stomach pains, sore throat, bad breath -- again, note when they started, how long they've been around, and how bad they've been
4) Tell the doctor or nurse about any treatments you've tried, as well as any medications you take normally
5) If you know you've been exposed to something contagious and you feel you're coming down with the same thing, say that, too: "Two of my co-workers were out with strep throat last week."
6) If you have a pharmacy at which you get your prescriptions filled, have the number on hand in case the doctor wants to call in a prescription for you. This doesn't happen often, but it was a life saver one night when DD had an ear infection, and the pediatrician called in a prescription for some painkilling ear drops.
7) Last but not least, have a paper and pencil with you so you can take notes. Write down what the doctor or nurse tells you to do; don't rely on your not-well brain to remember everything.
When you get off the phone, do what you're told! The nurse or doctor won't tell you to come in if you're going to be fine, so if he wants to see you, or he wants you to go to an urgent care center, GO.
If he tells you to stay home and take care of yourself, do that, too. And if that's what you're told, won't you be happy you didn't drag your aching body down to the office?