Merck Manual

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When to See a Doctor


Michael R. Wasserman

, MD, California Association of Long Term Care Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023
Topic Resources

Routine visits

Generally, everyone should routinely see their doctor, dentist, and eye doctor for preventive care Overview of Preventive Care Traditional medical care focuses on improving health by identifying and treating health problems that have already produced symptoms or complications. In contrast, preventive medical care focuses... read more . Women should routinely see their primary care doctor or gynecologist for gynecologic examinations Diagnosis of Gynecologic Disorders . People can obtain a schedule of what type of care is required and how often visits are needed from their primary care doctor. Usually, infants and older people need more frequent preventive visits, but frequency also depends on a person’s health conditions. For example, a person with diabetes or a heart disorder (or risk factors for them) may need to have checkups and often testing relatively frequently.

Visits for a problem

When symptoms or other medical problems develop between preventive visits, people may be unsure whether they need to see a doctor. Many symptoms and problems can be handled at home. For example, most routine colds do not require a doctor’s attention or antibiotic treatment. Many small cuts and abrasions can be handled by first cleaning them with mild soap and water, then applying an antibiotic ointment and a protective covering (see Wounds: First-Aid Treatment First-Aid Treatment Cuts or tears in tissue (lacerations), scrapes (abrasions), and puncture wounds can be caused by bites or by other mechanisms. Wounds that are not caused by bites and are clean and relatively... read more ).

People with certain disorders should see a doctor sooner rather than later when new symptoms develop. For example, if people with a chronic lung disorder (such as asthma Asthma Asthma is a condition in which the airways narrow—usually reversibly—in response to certain stimuli. Coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that occur in response to specific triggers are... read more Asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is persistent narrowing (blocking, or obstruction) of the airways occurring with emphysema, chronic obstructive bronchitis, or both disorders. Cigarette... read more Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) ) begin to have difficulty breathing or if people with a weakened immune system get a fever, they should see a doctor promptly. The immune system Overview of the Immune System The immune system is designed to defend the body against foreign or dangerous invaders. Such invaders include Microorganisms (commonly called germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi) Parasites... read more may be weakened by diabetes Diabetes Mellitus (DM) Diabetes mellitus is a disorder in which the body does not produce enough or respond normally to insulin, causing blood sugar (glucose) levels to be abnormally high. Symptoms of diabetes may... read more , human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a viral infection that progressively destroys certain white blood cells and is treated with antiretroviral medications. If untreated, it can cause... read more Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection , use of chemotherapy drugs Chemotherapy and Other Systemic Cancer Treatments Systemic treatments are those that have effects throughout the body rather than being applied directly to the cancer. Chemotherapy is a form of systemic treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer... read more , or other conditions. People with chronic disorders should discuss with the doctor in advance what new or changed symptoms should prompt a nonroutine visit.

When unsure about the need to see a doctor or other practitioner, people should call their primary care doctor for guidance. Some doctors can be contacted through an online portal or by e-mail for nonemergency questions. Others prefer to be contacted by telephone. Doctors cannot give all-inclusive guidelines for when a visit is necessary because symptoms with the same cause vary too much and symptoms with different causes overlap too much. However, some problems clearly require a call to a health care practitioner.


Visits to the emergency department

In general, true emergencies should be handled by calling 911 or the local emergency service to provide ambulance service to the nearest hospital. However, deciding what qualifies as an emergency is sometimes difficult because symptoms vary greatly. Learning as much as possible about symptoms of life-threatening disorders (such as heart attack Symptoms Acute coronary syndromes result from a sudden blockage in a coronary artery. This blockage causes unstable angina or a heart attack (myocardial infarction), depending on the location and amount... read more Symptoms and stroke Symptoms A stroke occurs when an artery to the brain becomes blocked or ruptures, resulting in death of an area of brain tissue due to loss of its blood supply (cerebral infarction). Symptoms occur suddenly... read more ) in advance is useful, and good judgment is often required. If the problem seems possibly life threatening, the emergency department is the place to go. The following examples clearly require a visit to the emergency department:

Going to the emergency department for less serious problems may be appropriate when the person's primary care doctor is unavailable, such as during weekends or during the night. However, emergency department personnel may be unfamiliar with the person's medical history, and periodic crowding may mean long waits to see a doctor. In some health insurance plans, calling the primary care doctor first may be required in order to be reimbursed for a visit to the emergency department, unless symptoms suggest a life-threatening disorder. People should know the requirements of their insurance plan before an emergency develops.

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