Recent health scares are sending Americans to their doctors in droves. But how do you know when it’s just a cold or when you need to get to the clinic?

Those sniffles, aches and general malaise could be just a cold, but with common symptoms and recent health scares all over the news, you may be worried that it’s something far more serious. Knowing when to pull the covers up and stay in— and when to get to your doctor— could save you anxiety and the money associated with an unnecessary doctor’s bill.

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Dr. Sameer Maroof, a family physician at Doctors Express in Cary, North Carolina, said their office has seen an increase in the number of patients battling cold-like symptoms. Some of them are concerned that it could be a serious illness, such as the respiratory condition enterovirus D68.

Entering cold and flu season, temperature changes aggravating asthma symptoms, autumn allergies and the start of the school year—  “all of these factors combined are playing a role, and I’m seeing many upper-respiratory-type visits, more than any other time of the year,” Maroof said.

What are the chances it’s a serious illness?

The common cold affects the average American adult two or three times each year. Recently covered far and wide by the national media, enterovirus D68, on the other hand, has affected fewer than 1,000 in the last few months. Interestingly, the illnesses are closely related and have similar symptoms: runny nose, body aches, cough and respiratory problems.

The flu also shares some of these symptoms, causing additional chills, fever and sore throats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of Americans get the seasonal flu each year, but unlike the cold and enterovirus D68, vaccinations are available for this illness.

Thus far, the CDC has confirmed three cases of Ebola in the U.S., the latest illness to cause panic here and abroad. Although Ebola is far less common than the aforementioned illnesses, the virus can cause diarrhea, vomiting, heavy perspiration and unexplained bruising.

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If you feel the symptoms of a common cold, chances are that’s what you have, particularly given its prevalence compared with illnesses such as enterovirus D68 and Ebola. But even the common cold can get complicated and put you at a greater risk of developing another infection.

When should you see the doctor?

Determining when to see a doctor can be difficult in non-emergency cases. Staying hydrated, making yourself comfortable and getting plenty of rest may very well be the best option if you just have a cold. But certain situations definitely warrant a physician’s attention.

1. Difficulty breathing or wheezing. Adults and children alike can experience chest congestion with the cold. But if you or your child is wheezing or having a hard time breathing, see a doctor. It could be the sign of a more serious infection.

2. At-risk populations. “Some people have increased risk factors that would predispose them to serious illness,” explains Maroof. He suggests smokers and those with compromised immune systems – like the elderly and even those with diabetes – be evaluated when they are feeling sick.

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3. Persistent vomiting.
If you or your child can’t keep fluids down, dehydration, a potential medical emergency, is a real possibility.

4. Children with severe allergies or asthma. If a child’s asthma or allergy symptoms seem worse than usual, they could be masking a serious viral infection, says Maroof. Being evaluated will help rule out such illnesses.

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5. Symptoms lasting more than seven days. The common cold should be on its way out after seven days. If you are experiencing no improvements after a week, something else could be going on.

Maroof says if patients are unsure whether their illness warrants a doctor’s visit, they should err on the side of caution. Calling before you make an appointment could also save you some time. Doctor’s offices are accustomed to fielding calls about symptoms and will be able to recommend whether you should venture out or snuggle up with some blankets and soup.