A cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. There are at least 200 different cold viruses, the most common one being the rhinovirus ("nose virus"). Symptoms of a cold usually include a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, low-grade fever, and congestion of the ears, nose, and head. Colds usually last for a few days, but symptoms can persist for weeks.
A perceptive physician once said, "If you treat cold symptoms vigorously, they will go away in seven days. If left alone, they will disappear over the course of a week." There is no cure for the common cold. It is a viral illness that just needs to run its course.
Cold Prevention Tips
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread that way.
- Avoid sharing objects (cups, utensils, cigarettes, etc) with others.
- Use disposable tissues and dispose after use.
- Manage stress - Stress can lower your body’s ability to fend off colds and cases of flu.
- Eat nutritious foods and try to stay active.
- Stay home if you get sick. CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
- Follow public health advice regarding school closures, avoiding crowds, and other social distancing measures. Develop a family emergency plan as a precaution. This should include storing a supply of food, medicines, facemasks, alcohol-based hand rubs, and other essential supplies.
Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotic treatments (which work against bacteria) are ineffective. Over-the-counter medications may relieve some symptoms, but will not affect the course of the illness. Remember, your symptoms are a sign that your body’s defenses are fighting the virus. Your body will ultimately heal itself, so be patient and be good to yourself!
Self-Care for a Cold
- Drink plenty of clear fluids - You can try to lessen your symptoms with some old-fashioned and modern-day remedies. One of the oldest and most effective treatments is to rest and drink plenty of water. Water helps restore lost fluids and keeps mucus thin and flowing.
- Get lots of rest - Stay home and try to be patient with the healing process.
- Inhale steam from a hot shower, vaporizer, or kettle. Moisten air with a humidifier. Hot showers or a cool mist vaporizer can also liquefy secretions and unstuff a stuffed-up nose.
- Eat soup, drink hot beverages - Craving some chicken soup? Warm beverages and broths are soothing to the throat and may help thin nasal secretions.
- Maintain a light exercise routine if you feel up to it.
- Avoid smoking.
- Use over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms. It’s usually best to take a single medicine targeted for a particular symptom, rather than an all-in-one preparation. Read warning labels. Follow instructions. Use only when necessary.
- For a runny nose - decongestants can provide some relief without drowsiness.
- For a dry cough - look for a suppressant cough syrup with dextromethorphan. Cough syrups plus a vaporizer at your bedside can be a soothing combination for getting a good night's sleep.
- To loosen throat mucus - look for an expectorant syrup with guaifenesin.
- Other - Some folks try to manage with antihistamines, typically used for allergy relief. These medications cause drowsiness and can make cold congestion worse. Use nasal sprays as a last resort, never for more than three days. Be sure and read the entire label on over-the-counter medications. Some have precautions if you have a chronic health problem or are taking other prescription medications. Call your doctor if you are not sure what you can take to provide symptom relief.
When to Call Your Doctor
Cold (and flu) viruses probably account for more unnecessary trips to the doctor than any other causes. Using the self-care measures outlined above can help save you money, time, and frustration. However, understanding when you need your doctor's help is also part of wise medical self-care. After 8-10 days, if your symptoms seem to be getting worse, not better, call your doctor.
Related Services at UHS
Talk with the Pharmacist at your local drugstore for help with over-the-counter medications for symptom relief.
- Talk with the UHS Pharmacist (or your local drugstore) for help with over-the-counter medications for symptom relief.
- Advice Nurse: (510) 643-7197
- Appointments: (510) 642-2000
- Ask a Health Worker (located in residence halls and other housing - see Who's Your Health Worker).
For Faculty and Staff:
- Please refer questions to your health plan or primary care provider.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat, or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. It is meant to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between an individual and his/her clinician.